Decimals of the mathematical constant pi

While world record holders may have memorized more than 70,000 digits of pi, a JPL engineer explains why you really only need a tiny fraction of that for most calculations – even at NASA.

Update: October 24, 2022 – This article, originally written in 2016, has been updated to reflect the latest values for NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, which continues to venture farther into interstellar space. The author, Marc Rayman, has ventured on too, from the chief engineer for NASA’s Dawn mission, which concluded successfully in 2018, to the chief engineer for mission operations and science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

We received this question from a fan on Facebook who wondered how many decimals of the never-ending mathematical constant pi (π) NASA-JPL scientists and engineers use when making calculations:

“Does JPL only use 3.14 for its pi calculations? Or do you use more decimals, like say [360 or even more]?”

Here’s JPL’s Chief Engineer for Mission Operations and Science, Marc Rayman, with the answer:

Thank you for your question! This isn't the first time I've heard a question like this. In fact, it was posed many years ago by a sixth-grade science and space enthusiast who was later fortunate enough to earn a doctorate in physics and become involved in space exploration. His name was Marc Rayman.

To start, let me answer your question directly. For JPL's highest accuracy calculations, which are for interplanetary navigation, we use 3.141592653589793. Let's look at this a little more closely to understand why we don't use more decimal places. I think we can even see that there are no physically realistic calculations scientists ever perform for which it is necessary to include nearly as many decimal points as you asked about. Consider these examples:

  1. The most distant spacecraft from Earth is Voyager 1. As of this writing, it’s about 14.7 billion miles (23.6 billion kilometers) away. Let’s be generous and call that 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers). Now say we have a circle with a radius of exactly that size, 30 billion miles (48 billion kilometers) in diameter, and we want to calculate the circumference, which is pi times the radius times 2. Using pi rounded to the 15th decimal, as I gave above, that comes out to a little more than 94 billion miles (more than 150 billion kilometers). We don't need to be concerned here with exactly what the value is (you can multiply it out if you like) but rather what the error in the value is by not using more digits of pi. In other words, by cutting pi off at the 15th decimal point, we would calculate a circumference for that circle that is very slightly off. It turns out that our calculated circumference of the 30-billion-mile (48-billion-kilometer) diameter circle would be wrong by less than half an inch (about one centimeter). Think about that. We have a circle more than 94 billion miles (more than 150 billion kilometers) around, and our calculation of that distance would be off by no more than the width of your little finger.
  2. The illustration shows a cartoonish Voyager 1 flying in space with a conical signal eminating from its antenna. An inset shows a more distant view of Voyager with a line extending to Earth and a distance label between the Voyager and Earth marked ~131 AU.

    Put your pi math skills to the test with this problem from NASA's Pi Day Challenge. Can you use pi to determine what fraction of a signal from Voyager 1 reaches Earth? Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › View lesson page

  3. We can bring this closer to home by looking at our planet, Earth. It is more than 7,900 miles (12,700 kilometers) in diameter at the equator. The circumference is roughly 24,900 miles (40,100 kilometers). That's how far you would travel if you circumnavigated the globe – and didn't worry about hills, valleys, and obstacles like buildings, ocean waves, etc. How far off would your odometer be if you used the limited version of pi above? The discrepancy would be the size of a molecule. There are many different kinds of molecules, of course, so they span a wide range of sizes, but I hope this gives you an idea. Another way to view this is that your error by not using more digits of pi would be more than 30,000 times thinner than a hair!
  4. A view of Earth from space showing East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia with swirls and splotches of clouds across the planet.

    Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

  5. Let's go to the largest size there is: the known universe. The radius of the universe is about 46 billion light years. Now let me ask (and answer!) a different question: How many digits of pi would we need to calculate the circumference of a circle with a radius of 46 billion light years to an accuracy equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom, the simplest atom? It turns out that 37 decimal places (38 digits, including the number 3 to the left of the decimal point) would be quite sufficient. Think about how fantastically vast the universe is. It’s certainly far beyond what you can see with your eyes even on the darkest, most beautiful night of sparkling stars. It’s yet farther beyond the extraordinary vision of the James Webb Space Telescope. And the vastness of the universe is truly far, far, far beyond what we can even conceive. Now think about how incredibly tiny a single atom is. Isn’t it amazing that we wouldn’t need to use many digits of pi at all to cover that entire unbelievable range?
Link to text description available below

If you were to hold a single grain of sand at arm's length, you could cover the entire area of space taken up by this image, which was captured by the James Webb Space Telescope and contains thousands of galaxies. The oldest-known galaxy identified in the image is 13.1 billion years old. Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI | + Expand image | › More about the image | Text description (PDF)

Pi is an intriguing number with interesting mathematical properties. It’s fun to think about its truly endless sequence of digits, and it may be surprising how often it appears in the equations scientists and engineers use. But there are no questions – prosaic or esoteric – in humankind’s noble efforts to explore or comprehend the marvels of the cosmos, from the unimaginably smallest scales to the inconceivably largest, that could require very many of those digits.

Hear more from Marc in his inspiring TEDx talk, “If It Isn’t Impossible, It Isn’t Worth Trying” and in his Dawn Journal, where he wrote frequent updates about the Dawn mission’s extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition to the protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres.

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TAGS: Pi, Pi Day, Dawn, Voyager, Engineering, Science, Mathematics

  • NASA/JPL Edu

A long boom extends from a cylindrical telescope floating above Earth. At the end of the spacecraft's boom are three converging circular mirrors, like petals on a flower.

A NASA space telescope mission is giving astronomers a whole new way to peer into the universe, allowing us to uncover long-standing mysteries surrounding objects such as black holes. Find out how it works and how to engage students in the science behind the mission.

Some of the wildest, most exciting features of our universe – from black holes to neutron stars – remain mysteries to us. What we do know is that because of their extreme environments, some of these emit highly energetic X-ray light, which we can detect despite the vast distances between us and the source.

Now, a NASA space telescope mission is using new techniques to not only scout out these distant phenomena, but also provide new information about their origins. Read on to learn how scientists are getting exciting new perspectives on our universe and what the future of X-ray astronomy holds.

How They Did It

In 2021, NASA launched the Imaging X-Ray Polarimeter Explorer, or IXPE, through a collaboration with Ball Aerospace and the Italian Space Agency. The space telescope is designed to operate for two years, detecting X-rays emitted from highly energetic objects in space, such as black holes, different types of neutron stars (e.g., pulsars and magnetars) and active galactic nuclei. In its first year, the telescope is focusing on roughly a dozen previously studied X-ray sources, spending hours or even days observing each target to reveal new data made possible by spacecraft's scientific instruments.

IXPE isn't the first telescope to observe the universe in X-ray light. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched in 1999, has famously spent more than 20 years photographing our universe at a wavelength of light exclusively found in high-energy environments, such as where cosmic materials are heated to millions of degrees as a result of intense magnetic fields or extreme gravity.

Using Chandra, scientists can assign colors to the different energy levels, or wavelengths, produced by these environments. This allows us to get a picture of the highly energetic light ejected by black holes and tiny neutron stars – small, but extremely dense stars with masses 10-25 times that of our Sun. These beautiful images, such as from Chandra’s first target, Cassiopeia A (Cas A for short), show the violent beauty of stars exploding.

A blue halo of squiggly lines surrounds an explosion of colors extending out from the center of the supernova. Closest to the center is a circular splatter of orange surrounded by green and yellow and finally a hazy purple.

This image of the supernova Cassiopeia A from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the location of different elements in the remains of the explosion: silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green) and iron (purple). Each of these elements produces X-rays within narrow energy ranges, allowing maps of their location to be created. Image credit: NASA/CXC/SAO | › Full image and caption

While Chandra has earned its name as one of “The Great Observatories,” astronomers have long desired to peer further into highly energetic environments in space by capturing them in even more detail.

IXPE expands upon Chandra’s work with the introduction of a tool called a polarimeter, an instrument used to understand the shape and direction of the light that reaches the space telescope's detectors. The polarimeter on IXPE allows scientists to gain insight into the finer details of black holes, supernovas, and magnetars, like which direction they are spinning and their three-dimensional shape.

A blue halo of squiggly lines surrounds a fuzzy donut-shaped haze of magenta with splatters of blue and white throughout.

This image of Cassiopeia A was created using some of the first X-ray data collected by IXPE, shown in magenta, combined with high-energy X-ray data from Chandra, in blue. Image credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/IXPE | › Full image and caption

While scientists have just begun putting IXPE's capabilities to use, they're already starting to reveal new details about the inner workings of these objects – such as the magnetic field environment around Cas A, shown in a newly released image.

The supernova remnant is shown as a blob of blue with swirls of brighter blues and large splatters of white. Dashed lines on top of the image flow from the center outward. Dividing the supernova and lines into quarter sections of a circle, the top right section has lines that flow directly northeast. The section at the bottom right has lines that flow nearly southeast but curve northwards slightly The section at the bottom left has lines that flow straight up from the bottom edge of the supernova, curve around the center and then flow back down. And the section at the top left has lines that flow from the center directly west, others that curve around the center and flow diagonally northwest and others that flow from the center to the north. Small sections of the lines are highlighted in green at the 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 7 o'clock and 11 o'clock portions of the supernova.

The lines in this newly released image come from IXPE measurements that show the direction of the magnetic field across regions of Cassiopeia A. Green lines indicate regions where the measurements are most highly significant. These results indicate that the magnetic field lines near the outskirts of the supernova remnant are largely oriented radially, i.e., in a direction from the center of the remnant outwards. The IXPE observations also reveal that the magnetic field over small regions is highly tangled, without a dominant preferred direction. Observations such as this one can help scientists learn how particles shooting out from supernovae interact with the magnetic field created by the explosion. Image credits: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO; IXPE: NASA/MSFC/J. Vink et al. | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

“For the first time, we will use every collected photon of light to tell us about the nature and shapes of objects in the sky that would be dots of light otherwise,” says Roger Romani, a Stanford professor and the co-investigator on IXPE.

How It Works

Generally, when light is produced, it is what we call unpolarized, meaning that it oscillates in every direction. For example, our Sun produces unpolarized light. But sometimes, light is produced in a highly organized fashion, oscillating only in one direction. In astronomy, this arises when magnetic fields force particles to incredibly high speeds, creating highly organized, or polarized, light.

This is what makes objects like the supernova Cas A such enticing targets for IXPE. Exploded stars like Cas A generate massive energetic waves when they go supernova, giving scientists a view of how particles shooting out at immense speeds interact with the magnetic fields from such an event. In the case of Cas A, IXPE was able to determine that the x-rays are not very polarized, meaning the explosion created very turbulent regions with multiple field directions.

While the idea of polarized or organized light may sound abstract, you may have noticed it the last time you were outside on a sunny day. If you’ve tried on a pair of polarized sunglasses, you may have noticed that the glare was greatly reduced. That’s because as light scatters, it bounces off of reflective surfaces in all directions. However, polarized lenses have tiny filters that only allow light coming from a narrow band of directions to pass through.

The polarimeter on IXPE works in a similar way. Astronomers can determine the strength of an object's magnetic field by using the polarimeter to measure how much of the light detected by the telescope is polarized. Typically, the more polarized the light the stronger the magnetic field at the source.

Astronomers can even go a step further to measure the direction this light is oscillating by measuring the angle of the light that reaches the telescope. Because the polarized light leaves the source in a predictable fashion – namely perpendicular from its magnetic field – knowing the angle of the oscillating light provides information about the axis of rotation and potentially even the surface structure of objects such as neutron stars and nebulae.

Side by side animations showing a rope moving from side to side through an open window and a rope moving up and down through an open window. As the window closes, fewer of the waves in the rope moving up and down make it through the window whereas the rope moving from side to side is undisturbed.

In this demonstration, the rope represents light waves and the open window represents a polarimeter. Depending on the angle of the light waves (rope), more or less information makes it through the polarimeter (window) the narrower it is. By measuring the amount of light received through the polarimeter, IXPE can determine the angle and the polarization of the light. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Imagine, for example, that you were holding one end of a piece of rope secured to an object at the other end. If you swung the rope side to side to make horizontal waves, those waves would be able to make it through a narrow target like a window. If you started to shut the window from the top, narrowing the opening, the waves could conceivably still make it through the opening. However, if you made veritcal waves by waving the rope up and down, as the window closed, fewer and fewer waves would make it through the opening. Likewise, by measuring the light that makes it through the polarimeter to the detector on the other side, IXPE can determine the angle of the light received.

To collect this light, IXPE uses three identical mirrors at the end of a four meter (13 foot) boom. The light received by IXPE is carefully focused on the spacecraft’s polarimeter at the other end of the boom, allowing scientists to collect those crucial measurements.

During the IXPE launch broadcast, commentators discuss the components of the spacecraft and how it measures polarization. | Watch on YouTube

Why It's Important

Building on Chandra's observations from the past two decades, IXPE's novel approach to X-ray science is pulling the curtain back even farther on some of the most fascinating objects in the universe, providing first looks at how and where radiation is being produced in some of the most extreme environments in the universe. IXPE's measurements of Cas A are just the beginning, with even more mysterious targets ready to be explored.

Take it from Martin Weisskopf, the principal scientist on IXPE and project scientist for Chandra, who has spent his 50-year career working in X-ray astronomy, who says, “IXPE will open up the field in ways we’ve been stuck only theorizing about."

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Explore more on how NASA uses light to map our universe, and dig deeper into some of the celestial features it allows to study, such as blackholes and neutron stars.


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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: Universe, Stars and Galaxies, Space Telescope, IXPE, Astronomy, Science, Electromagnetic Spectrum

  • Brandon Rodriguez

Find out more about the historic first test, which could be used to defend our planet if a hazardous asteroid were discovered. Plus, explore lessons to bring the science and engineering of the mission into the classroom.

Update: Oct. 20, 2022 – The DART spacecraft successfully impacted the asteroid Dimorphos on September 26, reducing the period of the asteroid's orbit by 32 minutes. Scientists considered a change of 73 seconds to be the minimum amount for success. This article has been updated to reflect the latest data and images from the impact.

In a successful attempt to alter the orbit of an asteroid for the first time in history, NASA crashed a spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos on Sept. 26, 2022. The mission, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, took place at an asteroid that posed no threat to our planet. Rather, it was an ideal target for NASA to test an important element of its planetary defense plan.

Read further to learn about DART, how it worked, and how the science and engineering behind the mission can be used to teach a variety of STEM topics.

Why It's Important

The vast majority of asteroids and comets are not dangerous, and never will be. Asteroids and comets are considered potentially hazardous objects, or PHOs, if they are 100-165 feet (30-50 meters) in diameter or larger and their orbit around the Sun comes within five million miles (eight million kilometers) of Earth’s orbit. NASA's planetary defense strategy involves detecting and tracking these objects using telescopes on the ground and in space. In fact, NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, or CNEOS, monitors all known near-Earth objects to assess any impact risk they may pose. Any relatively close approach is reported on the Asteroid Watch dashboard.

Six triangular sections fan out from a shadowed view of Earth describing the PDCO's various activities, including 'Search, Detect & Track', 'Characterize', 'Plan and Coordinate', 'Mitigate', and 'Assess'.

NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office runs a variety of programs and initiatives aimed at detecting and responding to threats from potentially hazardous objects, should one be discovered. The DART mission is one component and the first mission being flown by the team. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

While there are no known objects currently posing a threat to Earth, scientists continue scanning the skies for unknown asteroids. NASA is actively researching and planning for ways to prevent or reduce the effects of a potential impact, should one be discovered. The DART mission was the first test of such a plan – in this case, whether it was possible to divert an asteroid from its predicted course by slamming into it with a spacecraft.

Eyes on Asteroids is a real-time visualization of every known asteroid or comet that is classified as a near-Earth object, or NEO. Asteroids are represented as blue dots and comets as shown as white dots. Use your mouse to explore the interactive further and learn more about the objects and how we track them. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Explore the full interactive

With the knowledge gained from the demonstration, similar techniques could be used in the future to deflect an asteroid or comet away from Earth if it were deemed hazardous to the planet.

How It Worked

With a diameter of about 525 feet (160 meters) – the length of 1.5 football fields – Dimorphos is the smaller of two asteroids in a double-asteroid system. Before DART's impact, Dimorphos orbited the larger asteroid called Didymos (Greek for "twin"), every 11 hours and 55 minutes.

Various Earth objects are shown to scale ranging from a bus at 14 meters to the Burj Khalifa skyscraper at 830 meters. Dimorphos at 163 meters is shown between the Statue of Liberty (93 meters) on its left and the Great Pyramid of Giza (139 meters) on its right. Didymos is shown between the One World Trade Center (546 meters) on its left and the Burj Khalifa on its right.

The sizes of the two asteroids in the Didymos system relative to objects on Earth. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL | + Expand image

Neither asteroid poses a threat to our planet, which is one reason why this asteroid system was the ideal place to test asteroid redirection techniques. At the time of DART's impact, the asteroid pair was 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) away from Earth as they traveled on their orbit around the Sun.

The DART spacecraft was designed to collide head-on with Dimorphos to alter its orbit, shortening the time it takes the small asteroid to travel around Didymos. Compared with Dimorphos, which has a mass of about 11 billion pounds (five billion kilograms), the DART spacecraft was light. It weighed just 1,210 pounds (550 kilograms) at the time of impact. So how did such a light spacecraft affect the orbit of a relatively massive asteroid?

You can use your mouse to explore this interactive view of DART's impact with Dimorphos from NASA's Eyes on the Solar System. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Explore the full interactive

DART was designed as a kinetic impactor, meaning it transferred its momentum and kinetic energy to Dimorphos upon impact, altering the asteroid's orbit in return. Scientists were able to make predictions about some of these effects thanks to principles described in Newton's laws of motion.

Newton’s first law told us that the asteroid’s orbit would remain unchanged until something acted upon it. Using the formula for linear momentum (p = m * v), we could calculate that the spacecraft, which at the time of impact would be traveling at 3.8 miles (6.1 kilometers) per second, would have about 0.5% of the asteroid’s momentum. The momentum of the spacecraft may seem small in comparison, but calculations suggested it would be enough to make a detectable change in the speed of Dimorphos' orbit. However, mission planners felt that changing Dimorphos’ orbit by at least 73 seconds would be enough to consider the test a success.

But there was more to consider in testing whether the technique could be used in the future for planetary defense. For example, the formula for kinetic energy (KE = 0.5 * m * v2) tells us that a fast moving spacecraft possesses a lot of energy.

When DART hit the surface of the asteroid, its kinetic energy was 10 billion joules! A crater was formed and material known as ejecta was blasted out as a result of the impact. Scientists are still studying the data returned from the mission to determine the amount of material ejected out of the crater, but estimates prior to impact put the number at 10-100 times the mass of the spacecraft itself. The force needed to push this material out was then matched by an equal reaction force pushing on the asteroid in the opposite direction, as described by Newton’s third law.

This animation shows conceptually how DART's impact is predicted to change Dimorphos' orbit from a larger orbit to a slightly smaller one that's several minutes shorter than the original. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Jon Emmerich | Watch on YouTube

How much material was ejected and its recoil momentum is still unknown. A lot depends on the surface composition of the asteroid, which scientists are still investigating. Laboratory tests on Earth suggested that if the surface material was poorly conglomerated, or loosely formed, more material would be blasted out. A surface that was well conglomerated, or densely compacted, would eject less material.

After the DART impact, scientists used a technique called the transit method to see how much the impact changed Dimorphos' orbit. As observed from Earth, the Didymos pair is what’s known as an eclipsing binary, meaning Dimorphos passes in front of and behind Didymos from our view, creating what appears from Earth to be a subtle dip in the combined brightness of the pair. Scientists used ground-based telescopes to measure this change in brightness and calculate how quickly Dimorphos orbits Didymos. By comparing measurements from before and after impact, scientists determined that the orbit of Dimorphos had slowed by 32 minutes to 11 hours and 23 minutes.

A pixelated black and white image is labeled 2022 Oct 04 11:55:39 UTC and shows a thin circular line representing Dimorphos' orbit. On the line are two semi-transparent circles colored green and blue. The blue circle is at about the 9 o'clock position on the orbit. The green circle is at about the 12 o'clock position. A second similar image to the right has smaller pixels and appears to be a slightly more distant view. The image on the right is labled 2022 Oct 09 10:56:47 UTC. In the image on the right, the blue circle is also at the 9 o'clock position on the orbit, but the green circle is at the 6 o'clock position. A key on the far right of the image identifies the green circle as Dimorphos, the blue circle as Expected Dimorphos from previous 11 hr.55 min. orbit, and the line as Dimorphos orbit.

The green circle shows the location of the Dimorphos asteroid, which orbits the larger asteroid, Didymos, seen here as the bright line across the middle of the images. The blue circle shows where Dimorphos would have been had its orbit not changed due to NASA’s DART mission purposefully impacting the smaller asteroid on Sept. 26, 2022. The images were obtained from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Goldstone planetary radar in California and the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/JPL/NASA JPL Goldstone Planetary Radar/National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

One of the biggest challenges of the DART mission was navigating a small spacecraft to a head-on collision with a small asteroid millions of miles away. To solve that problem, the spacecraft was equipped with a single instrument, the DRACO camera, which worked together with an autonomous navigation system called SMART Nav to guide the spacecraft without direct control from engineers on Earth. About four hours before impact, images captured by the camera were sent to the spacecraft's navigation system, allowing it to identify which of the two asteroids was Dimorphos and independently navigate to the target.

Two white points of light are circled in a fuzzy field of stars. The slightly larger point of light near the far right of the image is labeled Didymos.

A composite of 243 images of Didymos and Dimorphos taken by the DART spacecraft's DRACO camera on July 27, 2022, as the spacecraft was navigating to its target. Image credit: JPL DART Navigation Team | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

DART was not just an experimental asteroid impactor. The mission also used cutting-edge technology never before flown on a planetary spacecraft and tested new technologies designed to improve how we power and communicate with spacecraft.

Learn more about the engineering behind the DART mission, including the innovative Roll Out Solar Array and NEXT-C ion propulsion system, in this video featuring experts from the mission. Credit: APL | Watch on YouTube

One such technology that was first tested on the International Space Station and was later used on the solar-powered DART spacecraft, is the Roll Out Solar Array, or ROSA, power system. As its name suggests, the power system consisted of flexible solar panel material that was rolled up for launch and unrolled in space.

The Roll Out Solar Array, shown in this animated image captured during a test on the International Space Station, is making its first planetary journey on DART. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Some of the power generated by the solar array was used for another innovative technology, the spacecraft's NEXT-C ion propulsion system. Rather than using traditional chemical propulsion, DART was propelled by charged particles of xenon pushed from its engine. Ion propulsion has been used on other missions to asteroids and comets including Dawn and Deep Space 1, but DART's ion thrusters had higher performance and efficiency.

Follow Along

In the days following the event, NASA received images of the impact from a cubesat, LICIACube, that was deployed by DART before impact. The cubesat, which was provided by the Italian Space Agency, captured images of the impact and the ejecta cloud.

A flash of bright white with tendrils extending in all directions eminates from a more defined bright white blob. Overlapping rectangles show the object and ejecta in increasing contrast the closer they get to the center of the scene.

This image from LICIACube shows plumes of ejecta streaming from Dimorphos after DART's impact. Each rectangle represents a different level of contrast to better see fine structure in the plumes. By studying these streams of material, scientists will be able to learn more about the asteroid and the impact process. | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Lucy spacecraft observed Didymos to monitor how soon reflected sunlight from the ejecta plume could be seen. Going forward, DART team members will continue observing the asteroid system to measure the change in Dimorphos’ orbit and determine what happened on its surface. And in 2024, the European Space Agency plans to launch the Hera spacecraft to conduct an in-depth post-impact study of the Didymos system.

A starburst shape colored red grows in size and then contracts.

This animation, a timelapse of images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, covers the time spanning just before DART's impact at 4:14 p.m. PDT (7:14 p.m. EDT) on Septtember 26 through 5 hours post-impact. Plumes of material from a compact core appear as wisps streaming away from where the impact took place. An area of rapid, extreme brightening is also visible in the animation. Image credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Cristina Thomas (Northern Arizona University), Ian Wong (NASA-GSFC); Joseph DePasquale (STScI) | + Expand image | › DART image gallery

Continue following along with all the science from DART, including the latest images and updates on the mission website. Plus, explore even more resources on this handy page.

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The mission is a great opportunity to engage students in the real world applications of STEM topics. Start exploring these lessons and resources to get students engaging in STEM along with the mission.

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TAGS: Asteroids and Comets, DART, near-Earth objects, planetary defense, Science, K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Teachable Moments

  • Lyle Tavernier

We talked to a few JPL interns about what they've been working on, how they're taking NASA into the future, and what it all means to them.

Despite the challenges of the past two years, it’s been a busy time for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Among the Lab’s activities have been the launch and landing of a new Mars rover, preparations for sending a spacecraft to explore an ocean world beyond Earth, first light for missions studying our changing climate and the universe beyond, and the development of technology to help address the COVID pandemic.

All the while, JPL interns have continued supporting scientists, engineers, and technologists behind the scenes to make those missions and projects happen.

More than 600 summer interns are taking part in that crucial work – both in-person at the laboratory in Southern California as well as from their homes and dorms across the country. In May, JPL welcomed summer interns back on site for the first time since 2019 while continuing to offer remote internships as projects allow.

We wanted to hear what interns have been up to, how they're contributing to NASA missions and science, and what the experience has meant to them. So we caught up with three students who have helped see the lab through the last year or two – and in one case, seven years. Watch their stories in the video above.

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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 Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College Students, Science, Engineering, InSight, Mars, Europa, Ocean Worlds, Enceladus, Saturn, Cassini, Ceres

  • NASA/JPL Edu

A slightly oblong donut-shaped ring of glowing warm dust especially bright at spots on the top, left, and right surrounds a black hole.

Find out how scientists captured the first image of Sagittarius A*, why it's important, and how to turn it into a learning opportunity for students.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, has a supermassive black hole at its center, but we’ve never actually seen it – until now. The Event Horizon Telescope, funded by the National Science Foundation, has released the first image of our galactic black hole, Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A-star” and abbreviated Sgr A*).

Read on to find out how the image was acquired and learn more about black holes and Sagittarius A*. Then, explore resources to engage learners in the exciting topic of black holes.

How Black Holes Work

A black hole is a location in space with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it. A black hole’s outer edge, called its event horizon, defines the spherical boundary where the velocity needed to escape exceeds the speed of light. Matter and radiation fall in, but they can’t get out. Because not even light can escape, a black hole is literally black. Contrary to their name’s implication, black holes are not empty. In fact, a black hole contains a great amount of matter packed into a relatively small space. Black holes come in various sizes and can exist throughout space.

We can surmise a lot about the origin of black holes from their size. Scientists know how some types of black holes form, yet the formation of others is a mystery. There are three different types of black holes, categorized by their size: stellar-mass, intermediate-mass, and supermassive black holes.

Stellar-mass black holes are found throughout our Milky Way galaxy and have masses less than about 100 times that of our Sun. They comprise one of the possible endpoints of the lives of high-mass stars. Stars are fueled by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen, which forms helium and other elements deep in their interiors. The outflow of energy from the central regions of the star provides the pressure necessary to keep the star from collapsing under its own weight.

A bubble if gas is sucked into a swirl of glowing dust and gas around a black hole as hair-like whisps extend from the top and bottom of the swirl.

This illustration shows a binary system containing a stellar-mass black hole called IGR J17091-3624. The strong gravity of the black hole, on the left, is pulling gas away from a companion star on the right. This gas forms a disk of hot gas around the black hole, and the wind is driven off this disk. Image credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss | › Full image and caption

Once the fuel in the core of a high-mass star has completely burned out, the star collapses, sometimes producing a supernova explosion that releases an enormous amount of energy, detectable across the electromagnetic spectrum. If the star’s mass is more than about 25 times that of our Sun, a stellar-mass black hole can form.

Intermediate-mass black holes have masses between about 100 and 100,000 times that of our Sun. Until recently, the existence of intermediate-mass black holes had only been theorized. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has identified several intermediate-mass black hole candidates by observing X-rays emitted by the gas surrounding the black hole. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, funded by the National Science Foundation, detected the merger of two stellar-mass black holes with masses 65 and 85 times that of our Sun forming an intermediate-mass black hole of 142 solar masses. (Some of the mass was converted to energy and about nine solar masses were radiated away as gravitational waves.)

Supermassive black holes contain between a million and a billion times as much mass as a stellar-mass black hole. Scientists are uncertain how supermassive black holes form, but one theory is that they result from the combining of stellar-mass black holes.

A scale on the bottom shows mass (relative to the Sun) from 1 to 1 million and beyond. Stellar-mass black holes are shown on the left side of the scale between about 10 and 100 solar masses, followed on the right by intermediate-mass black holes from 100 to over 100,000 stellar masses followed by supermassive black holes from about 1 million on.

This chart illustrates the relative masses of super-dense cosmic objects, ranging from white dwarfs to the supermassive black holes encased in the cores of most galaxies. | › Full image and caption

Our local galactic center’s black hole, Sagittarius A*, is a supermassive black hole with a mass of about four million suns, which is fairly small for a supermassive black hole. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other telescopes have determined that many galaxies have supermassive black holes at their center.

A bright-white collection of stars is surrounded by a berry colored swirl of stellar dust and stars.

This image shows the center of the Milky Way galaxy along with a closer view of Sagittarius A*. It was made by combining X-ray images from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue) and infrared images from the agency's Hubble Space Telescope (red and yellow). The inset shows Sgr A* in X-rays only, covering a region half a light year wide. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI | › Full image and caption

Why They're Important

Black holes hold allure for everyone from young children to professional astronomers. For astronomers, in particular, learning about Sagittarius A* is important because it provides insights into the formation of our galaxy and black holes themselves.

Understanding the physics of black hole formation and growth, as well as their surrounding environments, gives us a window into the evolution of galaxies. Though Sagittarius A* is more than 26,000 light years (152 quadrillion miles) away from Earth, it is our closest supermassive black hole. Its formation and physical processes influence our galaxy as galactic matter continually crosses the event horizon, growing the black hole’s mass.

Studying black holes also helps us further understand how space and time interact. As one gets closer to a black hole, the flow of time slows down compared with the flow of time far from the black hole. In fact, according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the flow of time slows near any massive object. But it takes an incredibly massive object, such as a black hole, to make an appreciable difference in the flow of time. There's still much to learn about what happens to time and space inside a black hole, so the more we study them, the more we can learn.

How Scientists Imaged Sagittarius A*

Black holes, though invisible to the human eye, can be detected by observing their effects on nearby space and matter. As a result of their enormous mass, black holes have extremely high gravity, which pulls in surrounding material at rapid speeds, causing this material to become very hot and emit X-rays.

This video explains how Sagittarius A* appears to still have the remnants of a blowtorch-like jet dating back several thousand years. Credit: NASA | Watch on YouTube

X-ray-detecting telescopes such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory can image the material spiraling into a black hole, revealing the black hole’s location. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope can measure the speed of the gas and stars orbiting a point in space that may be a black hole. Scientists use these measurements of speed to determine the mass of the black hole. Hubble and Chandra are also able to image the effects of gravitational lensing, or the bending of light that results from the gravitational pull of black holes or other high-mass objects such as galaxies.

A bright central blob is surrounded by blue halos and whisps forming a sort of target pattern.

The thin blue bull's-eye patterns in this Hubble Space Telescope image are called "Einstein rings." The blobs are giant elliptical galaxies roughly 2 to 4 billion light-years away. And the bull's-eye patterns are created as the light from galaxies twice as far away is distorted into circular shapes by the gravity of the giant elliptical galaxies. | › Full image and caption

To directly image the matter surrounding a black hole, thus revealing the silhouette of the black hole itself, scientists from around the world collaborated to create the Event Horizon Telescope. The Event Horizon Telescope harnesses the combined power of numerous telescopes around the world that can detect radio-wave emissions from the sky to create a virtual telescope the size of Earth.

Narrated by Caltech’s Katie Bouman, this video explains how she and her fellow teammates at the Event Horizon Telescope project managed to take a picture of Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), a beastly black hole lying 27,000 light-years away at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Caltech | Watch on YouTube

In 2019, the team released the first image of a black hole's silhouette when they captured the glowing gasses surrounding the M87* galactic black hole nearly 53 million light-years (318 quintillion miles) away from Earth. The team then announced that one of their next endeavors was to image Sagittarius A*.

A warm glowing ring surrounds an empty blackness.

Captured by the Event Horizon Telescope in 2019, this image of the the glowing gasses surrounding the M87* black hole, was the first image ever captured of a black hole. Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration | + Expand image

To make the newest observation, the Event Horizon Telescope focused its array of observing platforms on the center of the Milky Way. A telescope array is a group of telescopes arranged so that, as a set, they function similarly to one giant telescope. In addition to the telescopes used to acquire the M87* image, three additional radio telescopes joined the array to acquire the image of Sagittarius A*: the Greenland Telescope, the Kitt Peak 12-meter Telescope in Arizona, and the NOrthern Extended Millimeter Array, or NOEMA, in France.

This image of the center of our Milky Way galaxy representing an area roughly 400 light years across, has been translated into sound. Listen for the different instruments representing the data captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope. The Hubble data outline energetic regions where stars are being born, while Spitzer's data captures glowing clouds of dust containing complex structures. X-rays from Chandra reveal gas heated to millions of degrees from stellar explosions and outflows from Sagittarius A*. Credit: Chandra X-ray Observatory | Watch on YouTube

The distance from the center of Sagittarius A* to its event horizon, a measurement known as the Schwarzschild radius, is enormous at seven million miles (12,000,000 kilometers or 0.08 astronomical units). But its apparent size when viewed from Earth is tiny because it is so far away. The apparent Schwarzschild radius for Sagittarius A* is 10 microarcseconds, about the angular size of a large blueberry on the Moon.

Acquiring a good image of a large object that appears tiny when viewed from Earth requires a telescope with extraordinarily fine resolution, or the ability to detect the smallest possible details in an image. The better the resolution, the better the image and the more detail the image will show. Even the best individual telescopes or array of telescopes at one location do not have a good enough resolution to image Sagittarius A*.

A dense field of stars like grains of sand is surrounded by wispy clouds of glowing gas and dust.

This image captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows the star-studded center of the Milky Way towards the constellation of Sagittarius. Even though you can't see our galaxy's central black hole directly, you might be able to pinpoint its location based on what you've learned about black holes thusfar. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Brammer | › Full image and caption

The addition of the 12-meter Greenland Telescope, though a relatively small instrument, widened the diameter, or aperture, of the Event Horizon Telescope to nearly the diameter of Earth. And NOEMA – itself an array of twelve 15-meter antennas with maximum separation of 2,500 feet (760 meters) – helped further increase the Event Horizon Telescope’s light-gathering capacity.

Altogether, when combined into the mighty Event Horizon Telescope, the virtual array obtained an image of Sagittarius A* spanning about 50 microarcseconds, or about 1/13th of a billionth the span of the night sky.

A slightly oblong donut-shaped ring of glowing warm dust especially bright at spots on the top, left, and right surrounds a black hole.

Sagittarius A* is more than 26,000 light years (152 quadrillion miles) away from Earth and has the mass of 4 million suns. Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope | › Full image and caption

While the Event Horizon Telescope was busy capturing the stunning radio image of Sagittarius A*, an additional worldwide contingent of astronomical observatories was also focused on the black hole and the region surrounding it. The aim of the team, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Multiwavelength Science Working Group, was to observe the black hole in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum beyond radio. As part of the effort, X-ray data were collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope (NuSTAR), and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, additional radio data were collected by the East Asian Very Long-Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) network and the Global 3 millimeter VLBI array, and infrared data were collected by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

The data from these multiple platforms will allow scientists to continue building their understanding of the behavior of Sagittarius A* and to refine their models of black holes in general. The data collected from these multiwavelength observations are crucial to the study of black holes, such as the Chandra data revealing how quickly material falls in toward the disk of hot gas orbiting the black hole’s event horizon. Data such as these will hopefully help scientists better understand black hole accretion, or the process by which black holes grow.

Teach It

Check out these resources to bring the real-life STEM of black holes into your teaching, plus learn about opportunities to involve students in real astronomy research.

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Educator Guides

Student Activities

Check out these related resources for students from NASA’s Space Place

Across the NASA-Verse

This Teachable Moment was created in partnership with NASA’s Universe of Learning. 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: Black hole, Milky Way, galaxy, universe, stars, teachers, educators, lessons, Teachable Moments, K-12, science

  • Ota Lutz

Scenes from Jackie Prosser's fourth-grade classroom including a door poster commemorating Dorothy Vaughan, a poster with the words Dare Mighty Things glued to it, a yellow lab surrounded by NASA posters, and Miss Prosser with two other teachers all wearin

This fourth-grade teacher is finding creative ways to get her students back into the flow of classroom learning with the help of STEAM education resources from JPL.

Jackie Prosser is a fourth-grade teacher in Fairfield, California, finishing her second year as a classroom teacher. She is a recent graduate of the University of California, Riverside, where she simultaneously received her teaching credential and her master's in education. This was where I was fortunate enough to meet Miss Prosser, through a collaboration between the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UCR designed to help new teachers incorporate STEM into their future classrooms. She and her cohort immediately struck me as passionate future teachers already exploring unique ways to bring space science into their teaching.

But it's been a challenging transition for Miss Prosser and teachers like her who started their careers amid a pandemic. She began her student-teaching in person only to find that she would have to switch to teaching remotely just four months into the job. Now, she's back in the classroom but facing new challenges getting students up to speed academically while reacquainting them with the social aspects of in-person learning.

I caught up with her to find out how she's managing the transition and developing creative ways to support the individual needs of her students and, at the same time, incorporating science and art into her curriculum with the help of STEAM resources from the JPL Education Office.

What made you want to become an elementary school teacher?

Originally, I became a teacher because I love to see that moment of light when a concept finally clicks in a kid’s mind. I am still a teacher (even after the craziest two years ever) because every kid deserves someone to fight for them, and I know I can be that person for at least 32 kids a year.

I love to teach young kids especially for two reasons. The first is their honesty; no one will tell you exactly like it is like a nine-year-old will. The second is that I love the excitement kids have for learning at this age.

It has been a bumpy couple years, especially this past school year when it was unclear if we would be remote again or back in the classroom. How has it been coming back from remote learning?

Coming back from remote learning has been an incredible challenge, but we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the year. Students really struggled being back in a highly structured environment. It was very hard to balance meeting the individual needs of each student and getting them used to the structure and expectations of the classroom.

My fourth graders were online for the last part of second grade and a vast majority of third grade. This is when students really start to solve conflicts and regulate their emotions with less support from adults. I have seen a lot more problems with emotion regulation and conflict among my students this year than in years past.

There is a lot of pressure on teachers right now to make up for all the learning loss and for students being behind on grade-level standards. But I don’t think enough people talk about how much joy and social interaction they also lost during remote learning. Teachers are also feeling the pressure of that. I want to help my students be the very best versions of themselves and being happy and comfortable with themselves is a huge part of that.

Description in caption.

A student looks at a page from the NASA Solar System Exploration website. Image courtesy: Jackie Prosser | + Expand image

How do you structure your class to get students back in the flow of a school setting?

I use a lot of manipulatives in my math lessons and try to make their learning as hands-on as possible. I also teach math in small groups to be able to better meet the individual needs of my students. I have one group with me learning the lesson, one group doing their independent practice of the skill, and one group on their computers. Then, the students switch until each group has done each activity.

You’re a big fan of science and came to several JPL Education workshops while you were still in school yourself. Are there JPL Education resources that you have found particularly impactful for your students?

I have always loved teaching science. It is so often left behind or pushed aside. I think a lot of time that happens because teachers feel like they do not have enough background knowledge to teach high-quality science lessons or they think that the lessons will add to the already enormous workload teachers have. My district does not have an adopted or prescribed curriculum for teachers to follow, so we have a lot of freedom for when and how to make the time for STEAM.

The education resources [from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory] have made it so easy for me to teach and get kids excited about science, and my kids absolutely love them. Our favorites always seem to be Make a Paper Mars Helicopter and Art and the Cosmic Connection.

Description in caption.

A student holds a paper Mars helicopter. Image courtesy: Jackie Prosser | + Expand image

I also am part of my district’s science pilot program. It has been so cool to be able to decide what curriculum to pilot and watch my students test it out and give feedback on their learning. Last year, I had the amazing opportunity to teach science for two elementary schools’ summer programs. My partner teacher and I got to create the curriculum for them, and we pulled a ton of lessons from the JPL Education website. It was by far the most fun I have ever had at a job.

Despite being a new teacher, you’ve already seen so much. How have you navigated the changing landscape?

I have an amazing network of teachers supporting me at every turn. My grade-level team and my friends from my credential program are some of the most amazing people and educators I have ever met. There is no way I would be able to get through the more difficult aspects of teaching without them.

I am also coaching the boys soccer team, directing the school’s "Lion King Jr." play, contributing to the science pilot program, and serving on the social committee for teachers and staff. I love using these different roles to make connections with not just my students, but also students from all grades.

Looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom or already have a great idea? The Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at

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TAGS: Teachers, School, Remote School, Classroom, Instruction, K-12, Fourth Grade, STEAM, Science, Math, Art, UC Riverside, resources, lessons

  • Brandon Rodriguez

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

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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

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

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.

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.

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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