Animated image of Mercury passing in front of the Sun during the 2019 transit of Mercury

In the News

It only happens about 13 times a century and won’t happen again until 2032, so don’t miss the transit of Mercury on Monday, Nov. 11! A transit happens when a planet crosses in front of a star. From our perspective on Earth, we only ever see two planets transit the Sun: Mercury and Venus. This is because these are the only planets between us and the Sun. (Transits of Venus are especially rare. The next one won’t happen until 2117.) During the upcoming transit of Mercury, viewers around Earth (using the proper safety equipment) will be able to see a tiny dark spot moving slowly across the disk of the Sun.

Read on to learn how transits contributed to past scientific discoveries and for a look at how scientists use them today. Plus, find resources for engaging students in this rare celestial event!

Why It's Important

Then and Now

In the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler discovered that both Mercury and Venus would transit the Sun in 1631. It was fortunate timing: The telescope had been invented just 23 years earlier, and the transits of both planets wouldn’t happen in the same year again until 13425. Kepler didn’t survive to see the transits, but French astronomer Pierre Gassendi became the first person to see the transit of Mercury. Poor weather kept other astronomers in Europe from seeing it. (Gassendi attempted to view the transit of Venus the following month, but inaccurate astronomical data led him to mistakenly believe it would be visible from his location.) It was soon understood that transits could be used as an opportunity to measure apparent diameter – how large a planet appears from Earth – with great accuracy.

After observing the transit of Mercury in 1677, Edmond Halley predicted that transits could be used to accurately measure the distance between the Sun and Earth, which wasn’t known at the time. This could be done by having observers at distant points on Earth look at the variation in a planet’s apparent position against the disk of the Sun – a phenomenon known as parallax shift. This phenomenon is what makes nearby objects appear to shift more than distant objects when you look out the window of a car, for example.

Today, radar is used to measure the distance between Earth and the Sun with greater precision than transit observations. But the transits of Mercury and Venus still provide scientists with opportunities for scientific investigation in two important areas: exospheres and exoplanets.

Exosphere Science

Some objects, like the Moon and Mercury, were originally thought to have no atmosphere. But scientists have discovered that these bodies are actually surrounded by an ultrathin atmosphere of gases called an exosphere. Scientists want to better understand the composition and density of the gases in Mercury’s exosphere, and transits make that possible.

“When Mercury is in front of the Sun, we can study the exosphere close to the planet,” said NASA scientist Rosemary Killen. “Sodium in the exosphere absorbs and re-emits a yellow-orange color from sunlight, and by measuring that absorption, we can learn about the density of gas there.”

Exoplanet Discoveries

When Mercury transits the Sun, it causes a slight dip in the Sun’s brightness as it blocks a tiny portion of the Sun’s light. Scientists discovered they could use that phenomenon to search for planets orbiting distant stars. These planets, called exoplanets, are otherwise obscured from view by the light of their star. When measuring the brightness of far-off stars, a slight recurring dip in the light curve (a graph of light intensity) could indicate an exoplanet orbiting and transiting its star. NASA’s Kepler space telescope found more than 2,700 exoplanets by looking for this telltale drop in brightness. NASA’s TESS mission is surveying 200,000 of the brightest stars near our solar system and is expected to potentially discover more than 10,000 transiting exoplanets.

Animated cartoon image of a planet crossing in front of a star and an inset that shows a graph dipping as the planet does so

This animation shows one method scientists use to hunt for planets outside our solar system. When exoplanets transit their parent star, we can detect the dip in the star’s brightness using space telescopes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Additionally, scientists have been exploring the atmospheres of exoplanets. Similarly to how we study Mercury’s exosphere, scientists can observe the spectra – a measure of light intensity and wavelength – that passes through an exoplanet’s atmosphere. As a result, they’re beginning to understand the evolution and composition of exoplanet atmospheres, as well as the influence of stellar wind and magnetic fields.

Collage of exoplanet posters from NASA

Using the transit method and other techniques, 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 imagine what future explorers might encounter on these faraway worlds. Credit: NASA | › Download posters

Watch It

During the transit of Mercury, the planet will appear as a tiny dot on the Sun’s surface. To see it, you’ll need a telescope or binoculars outfitted with a special solar filter.

WARNING! Looking at the Sun directly or through a telescope without proper protection can lead to serious and permanent vision damage. Do not look directly at the Sun without a certified solar filter.

The transit of Mercury will be partly or fully visible across much of the globe. However, it won’t be visible from Australia or most of Asia and Alaska.

Graphic showing Mercury's path across the Sun on Nov. 11, 2019 and the times that it will be at each location

The transit of Mercury on Nov. 11, 2019, begins at 4:35 a.m. PST (7:35 a.m. EST), but it won’t be visible to West Coast viewers until after sunrise. Luckily, viewers will have several more hours to take in the stellar show, which lasts until 10:04 a.m. PST (1:04 p.m. EST). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Mercury’s trek across the Sun begins at 4:35 a.m. PST (7:35 a.m. EST), meaning viewers on the East Coast of the U.S. can experience the entire event, as the Sun will have already risen before the transit begins. By the time the Sun rises on the West Coast, Mercury will have been transiting the Sun for nearly two hours. Fortunately, the planet will take almost 5.5 hours to completely cross the face of the Sun, so there will be plenty of time for West Coast viewers to witness this event. See the transit map below to learn when and where the transit will be visible.

Graphic showing a flat map of the world with areas where the transit of Mercury on Nov. 11, 2019 will be partially to fully visible indicated along with transit start and end times

This map shows where and when the transit will be visible on November 11. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Don’t have access to a telescope or binoculars with a solar filter? Visit the Night Sky Network website to find events near you where amateur astronomers will have viewing opportunities available.

During the transit, NASA will share near-real-time images of the Sun directly from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Beginning at 4:41 a.m. PST (7:41 a.m. EST) you can see images of Mercury passing in front of the Sun at NASA’s 2019 Mercury Transit page, with updates through the end of the transit at 10:04 a.m. PST (1:04 p.m. EST).

If you’re in the U.S., don’t miss the show, as this is the last time a transit will be visible from the continental United States until 2049!

Watch this month's installment of "What's Up" to learn more about how to watch the Nov. 11 transit of Mercury. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Teach It

Use these lessons and activities to engage students in the transit of Mercury and the hunt for planets beyond our solar system:

Explore More

Transit Resources:

Exoplanet Resources:

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

TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Students, Educators, Mercury, Transit, Transit of Mercury, What's Up, Astronomy, Resources for Educators, Exoplanets, Kepler, TESS

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Side-by-side images of Clara Ma, wearing braces, in 2009 posing for a picture in front of a Curiosity rover model and Ma in 2019 posing for a photo in Europe

Students have just over one week more to enter NASA’s Name the Rover Essay Contest. While they put the finishing touches on their essays (due Nov. 1, 2019), meet the most recent naming contest winner, Clara Ma. Find out what Ma is up to more than 10 years after submitting her winning name for the Mars rover now known as Curiosity and why she says the experience changed her life.

› Read more on JPL News

› Find related resources for educators

 

TAGS: Curiosity, Rover, Contest, Mars, Students, K-12, Teachers, Language Arts, Essay

  • Kim Orr
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NASA is inviting students to help name its next Mars rover! Set to launch from Florida in the summer of 2020, NASA’s fifth rover to visit the Red Planet is designed to study past environments capable of supporting life, seek signs of ancient microbial life, collect rock and soil samples for a possible future return to Earth, and test technologies that could produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for use by humans one day. But before it can do that, it needs a name.

Following in the tracks of NASA’s four previous Mars rovers, the agency is asking students to suggest a name. The first Mars rover, which landed in 1997, was called the Microrover Flight Experiment until a 12-year old student from Connecticut suggested the name Sojourner, in honor of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. In 2004, a third-grade student from Arizona named NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity, which landed in 2012 and is the most recent rover to visit Mars, was named by a sixth-grade student in Kansas.

To enter the Name the Rover Essay Contest, individual students must submit an essay of up to 150 words by Nov. 1, 2019. In their essay, students will need to propose the name they think best suits the rover and explain their reasoning. Judges will select three finalists (one each from grades K-4, 5-8 and 9-12) from every state and U.S. territory. From there, judges will narrow down the finalists further before they select a final name in the spring of 2020.

So what makes a good name? There are lots of ways to become inspired, but students should start by learning about the rover as well as the Red Planet and why we explore. But they shouldn’t stop there. There are many ways to spark ideas from students, including writing planetary poetry, making cosmic art, and having them build rovers of their own. Get students thinking and writing creatively, and encourage them to submit their essay!

› Enter the contest

The contest is open to U.S. residents enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in a U.S. school (including U.S. territories and schools operated by the U.S. for the children of American personnel overseas). Home-school students can also submit a name!

Explore More

TAGS: Mars, rover, contest, Mars 2020, K-12 education, STEM, language arts, essay, science, students

  • 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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Jose Martinez-Camacho stands in front of a Moon display, featuring a lunar rock sample, in the Visitor Center at JPL.

In high school, science was the last thing on Jose Martinez-Camacho's mind. But one day, he was flipping through his chemistry textbook, and a diagram caught his eye. It described an experiment that was the first to identify the structure of an atom. Martinez-Camacho was amazed that a science experiment could reveal the inner workings of something so mysterious. He was hooked. Now a physics major at Cal Poly Pomona and in his fourth year interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Martinez-Camacho is immersed in unveiling the details of other mysterious objects: lunar craters. Using a simulation he developed, Martinez-Camacho is working to understand how the temperatures inside and around craters in the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon might point the way to water ice. We caught up with him to find out more about his internship and his career journey so far.

You've done several internships at JPL, starting in 2015. What are the projects you've worked on?

My first internship in the summer of 2015 was with the Lunar Flashlight mission. The idea of the mission is to reflect sunlight into the permanent shadowed regions of the Moon to detect water ice. My project was testing and characterizing the photodetectors that would be used to identify the water ice. So most of that project involved setting up an experiment to test those detectors.

My next internship was still with the Lunar Flashlight mission, but my project was to model the amount of stray light that the detector was expected to receive from the lunar surface.

After that, I started to work with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Diviner team. [Diviner is an instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that creates detailed daytime and nighttime temperature maps of the Moon.] In that project, I was working with Catherine Elder to validate one of her algorithms that can identify the abundance and size distribution of lunar rocks in a single pixel of an image taken by Diviner. So I used the algorithm to analyze the rock populations around the Surveyor landers, which took images on the lunar surface that we could use to validate our results.

What I'm working on now is 2D thermal modeling of craters in the polar regions of the Moon. The end goal is to better understand the thermal environments of the Moon's permanently shadowed regions, which can harbor water ice. Because the stability of water ice is very sensitive to temperatures, knowing the thermal environment can tell us a lot about where these water-ice deposits might exist.

Bright greens, purples and red indicate temperatures of craters on a section of the Moon in this data image

This temperature map from the Diviner instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the locations of several intensely cold impact craters that are potential cold traps for water ice as well as a range of other icy compounds commonly observed in comets. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/UCLA | + Expand image

What is your average day like on your current project?

I'm using MATLAB to write code [that I use to model the craters]. I wrote the code from scratch. Right now I'm at the point where I've written the program, I've gone through most of the debugging and the derivations of the equations and picking the algorithm, so I'm just running the model and waiting for results. So an average day would be to come in and run the model for different cases. There's a range of crater diameters and a range of latitudes where permanent shadows exist, so I run the model for these different cases, wait for the results and interpret the results at the end of the simulations. I also do some debugging now and then to deal with problems in the code.

What got you interested in a science career?

I think it happened in my junior year of high school. I was always disinterested in school and never paid attention. In chemistry class, we were learning about the atom, and for some reason, I opened up my chemistry book at home and started looking at the diagrams. I found a section on the Rutherford gold foil experiment, which showed that atoms consist of a tightly packed positive nucleus surrounded by electrons. I was amazed that someone could deduce that from a simple experiment. So that sparked my interest in science. After that, I started to read about chemistry and astronomy and all types of science. That was the pivotal moment.

How did you pursue that career path, and were there any challenges along the way?

I knew I'd have to go to community college because, at the time, my GPA wasn't going to get me anywhere. So I knew I had to start at the very, very beginning. But I had a very clear plan: Just keep studying, keep getting good grades until you get to where you want to be.

Sometimes students – especially community college students – feel intimidated applying for JPL internships, even though they should absolutely apply! Did you feel that way at all, and if so, how did you overcome that fear?

I was almost not going to submit my application just because I thought I wasn't good enough to intern at JPL. But ultimately, I had nothing to lose if I got rejected. It would be the same outcome as if I didn't apply, so I submitted my application. And I was really surprised when I got the acceptance letter.

What was your first experience at JPL like?

Everything was super-unfamiliar. I was in a lab, working on a science instrument, and I wasn't an instruments guy. But I got a lot of help from other people who were on the project. Even though it was difficult, it made it very enjoyable to always have someone there with the right answer or a suggestion.

How has your time at JPL molded your career path?

I think it established it. Next year, I'm going to Southern Methodist University to start a geophysics Ph.D. and my graduate advisor is someone who I met at one of the Diviner team meetings. Being at JPL has made that connection for me. And through JPL, I found what I want to do as a career.

What is your ultimate career goal?

After grad school, it would be really, really nice to come back here as a research scientist.

Are you interested in lunar research or anything planetary?

I think I'm really biased toward the Moon just because it's been my focus throughout my JPL internships. But I could see myself studying other planets or bodies. Mercury is very similar to the Moon. Anything without an atmosphere will do. That's what I'm comfortable with. If you add an atmosphere, the science is different. Ultimately, I think I'm interested in planetary science; it's just a matter of learning new science and learning about new planetary bodies.

Well, that leads nicely into my fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I think I'd go somewhere around Saturn, or a moon of Saturn. Looking up from one of Saturn's moons would be a pretty amazing sight, with Saturn and its rings on the horizon.

Going back to your career path so far, did you have any mentors along the way?

In high school, I don't think so. I just needed to graduate. But in community college, I was part of this program called EOPS, or Extended Opportunity Programs and Services. It's for minorities and disadvantaged groups. There's counseling involved with people who knew what someone like me might be struggling with. There was that support group throughout my time at Citrus College. And there was also the Summer Research Experience Program [at Citrus.] That's the one I applied to in order to get the summer internship here. It was through Citrus College's partnership with JPL. One of the people who was in charge of that, Dr. Marianne Smith, she was always encouraging me, saying, "Just because you come from a community college doesn't mean you're any less than someone who is at UCLA or any other university." So that was another source of support.

Did you see advantages to going the community college route?

Yeah, definitely. It's a smaller community, so you get to form connections a lot easier than you would at a larger college. The quality of education there is probably on par with other universities. So, there was certainly no disadvantage. And then there was that advantage of the smaller community. It's more personalized and easier to get help.

What would you recommend to other students in community college who are interested in coming to JPL?

Apply to the program. Take advantage of the summers and apply to internships. At Citrus College they have the Summer Research Experience Program, and they probably have something similar at other community colleges. Take advantage of that. If I hadn't applied to that program that summer, my life would be totally different. Those decisions can shape your future.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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.

TAGS: Higher Education, College, Internships, Interns, Science, Moon, Community College, Students

  • Kim Orr
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Amiee Quon points to a small rover built out of legos as her team stands in a circle around her examining the rover.

Last week, 40 community college students landed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to accept the challenge of building miniature Mars rovers over the course of four days, from July 9-12, putting their designs to the test in a series of competitions on simulated Martian terrain.

The challenge is part of the National Community College Aerospace Scholar, or NCAS, program, which hosts hundreds of students across multiple NASA centers for a twice-yearly educational workshop and engineering competition. The activity provides students with an up-close and intimate look at NASA missions, and an opportunity to present their work to a panel of judges.

Several students stand against a wall while another sets a miniature rover on a red surface meant to simulate Martian terrain

Students ready their rover to compete in one of two challenges that took place during the activity at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

One key part of their week here: The students, who are divided into four teams, are mentored by NASA scientists and engineers. And at JPL – where the competition is organized by the Education Office – nobody knows the mentorship experience better than Amiee Quon and Otto Polanco, JPL's two longest-serving NCAS mentors.

In 2012, Quon – who participated in the high school version of NCAS when she was 16 – saw an email circulated at JPL requesting mentors for the competition. She signed up and has been a mentor ever since.

“It’s so rewarding to see how excited they are about engineering, and when they work hard on something and collaborate, that things work out for them,” says Quon, a mechanical integration engineer who has worked on the Mars 2020 helicopter and the Juno mission orbiting Jupiter, and is currently working on the Europa Clipper mission.

10 students and Quon stand in two rows smiling with their winnings, including a padfolio and a Hot Wheels rover

Quon's team poses for a photo with their winnings from the summer 2019 competition. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Things worked out especially well for Quon's mentees this session: The 10 students on her team were named the winners of the summer 2019 competition.

“My team was very cohesive, and I was impressed by how well they worked together to design, build and operate their successful rover,” she says. “All the teams did a great job on the toughest competition course I’ve ever seen.”

For Polanco, being a mentor is a capstone on his own experience as a community college student. He started his undergraduate studies at Santa Monica College, transferred to Cal State L.A. to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and eventually landed an internship at JPL. He's been at JPL for 15 years and has worked as an optical-mechanical engineer on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, Starshade project and more.

The NCAS competition is an opportunity for Polanco to encourage students to go after what they want to do – including helping one female college freshman, whose family expected her to marry and have children instead of chasing a STEM career. Polanco guided her during an NCAS competition and stayed in touch throughout her college years; today, she’s pursuing a Ph.D. at Caltech and studying global climate change.

Polanco makes a claw motion with his hands, while three students stand in a semi circle around him with one student mimicking the claw motion

Polanco speaks with several of his mentees during the summer 2019 session of NCAS. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

“The most rewarding part is influencing people’s perspectives about what their engineering futures might be,” he says. “It’s about convincing them to pursue their dreams and passions and seeing them grow over the years.”

While Quon and Polanco play a big part in helping guide the students through various Mars rover challenges and their final presentations, they both recognize that their ultimate roles lie in reminding students that they deserve to achieve anything they set their minds to.

“A lot of our mentorship is raising the confidence levels of individuals,” Polanco says. “It’s through these side conversations that you often hear, ‘I’m not qualified or worthy enough to work here.’” And I always ask them, ‘Why do you put a ceiling on yourself?’”

Adds Quon: “We talked to somebody during the competition who felt they would be at a disadvantage going to career fairs because they transferred [into their current university]. But you’ve worked hard to get to where you are. There’s absolutely no reason to feel 'less than.'”

To that end, Polanco encourages more people at JPL to mentor when they can.

“I think it’s a really good experience for JPL employees to go through, to see how their own experience can help others,” he says. “My little path is a good example of what people can do. There are so many students in community college who struggle to see that end achievement. But the institution is good about hiring talent and [individuals with] strong work ethic, no matter where you went to school.”


The NCAS program is funded by the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program. Learn more and apply, here.

TAGS: Higher Education, Community College, NCAS, Mentors, Students, STEM, Engineering

  • Celeste Hoang
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Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon in his puffy, white spacesuit next to an American flag waving in the wind. The command module casts a long, dark shadow nearby.

In the News

This year marks the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the Moon. Now NASA is headed to the Moon once again, using it as a proving ground for a future human mission to Mars. Use this opportunity to get students excited about Earth's natural satellite, the amazing feats accomplished 50 years ago and plans for future exploration.

How They Did It

When NASA was founded in 1958, scientists were unsure whether the human body could even survive orbiting Earth. Space is a demanding environment. Depending on where in space you are, it can lack adequate air for breathing, be very cold or hot, and have dangerous levels of radiation. Additionally, the physics of space travel make everything inside a space capsule feel weightless even while it's hurtling through space. Floating around inside a protective spacecraft may sound fun, and it is, but it also can have detrimental effects on the human body. Plus, it can be dangerous with the hostile environment of space lurking on the other side of a thin metal shell.

In 1959, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory began the Ranger project, a mission designed to impact the Moon – in other words, make a planned crash landing. During its descent, the spacecraft would take pictures that could be sent back to Earth and studied in detail. These days, aiming to merely impact a large solar system body sounds rudimentary. But back then, engineering capabilities and course-of-travel, or trajectory, mathematics were being developed for the first time. A successful impact would be a major scientific and mathematical accomplishment. In fact, it took until July 1964 to achieve the monumental task, with Ranger 7 becoming the first U.S. spacecraft to impact the near side of the Moon, capturing and returning images during its descent.

Side-by-side images of a model of the Ranger 7 spacecraft in color and a black and white image of the Moon taken by Ranger 7.

These side-by-side images show a model of the Ranger 7 spacecraft (left) and an image the spacecraft took of the Moon (right) before it impacted the surface. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › + Expand image

After the successful Ranger 7 mission, two more Ranger missions were sent to the Moon. Then, it was time to land softly. For this task, JPL partnered with Hughes Aircraft Corporation to design and operate the Surveyor missions between 1966 and 1968. Each of the seven Surveyor landers were equipped with a television camera – with later landers carried scientific instruments, too – aimed at obtaining up-close lunar surface data to assess the Moon's suitability for a human landing. The Surveyors also demonstrated in-flight maneuvers and in-flight and surface-communications capabilities.

Side-by-side image of an astronaut next to the Surveyor 7 lander and a mosaic of images from Surveyor 3

These side-by-side images show Apollo 12 Commander Charles Conrad Jr. posing with the Surveyor 7 spacecraft on the Moon (left) and a mosaic of images taken by Surveyor 3 on the lunar surface (right). Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › + Expand image

In 1958, at the same time JPL was developing the technological capabilities to get to the Moon, NASA began the Mercury program to see if it was possible for humans to function in space. The success of the single-passenger Mercury missions, with six successful flights that placed two astronauts into suborbital flight and four astronauts into Earth orbit, kicked off the era of U.S. human spaceflight.

Cutaway illustration of the Mercury capsule with a single astronaut inside.

The success of the single-passenger Mercury capsule, shown in this illustrated diagram, proved that humans could live and work in space, paving the way for future human exploration. Image credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

In 1963, NASA's Gemini program proved that a larger capsule containing two humans could orbit Earth, allowing astronauts to work together to accomplish science in orbit for long-duration missions (up to two weeks in space) and laying the groundwork for a human mission to the Moon. With the Gemini program, scientists and engineers learned how spacecraft could rendezvous and dock while in orbit around Earth. They were also able to perfect re-entry and landing methods and began to better understand the effects of longer space flights on astronauts. After the successful Gemini missions, it was time to send humans to the Moon.

Cutaway illustration of the Gemini spacecraft with two astronauts inside.

The Gemini spacecraft, shown in this illustrated cutaway, paved the way for the Apollo missions. Image credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

The Apollo program officially began in 1963 after President John F. Kennedy directed NASA in September of 1962 to place humans on the Moon by the end of the decade. This was a formidable task as no hardware existed at the time that would accomplish the feat. NASA needed to build a giant rocket, a crew capsule and a lunar lander. And each component needed to function flawlessly.

Rapid progress was made, involving numerous NASA and contractor facilities and hundreds of thousands of workers. A crew capsule was designed, built and tested for spaceflight and landing in water by the NASA contractor North American Aviation, which eventually became part of Boeing. A lunar lander was developed by the Grumman Corporation. Though much of the astronaut training took place at or near the Manned Spacecraft Center, now known as NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Texas, astronauts practiced lunar landings here on Earth using simulators at NASA's Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center in California and at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. The enormous Saturn V rocket was a marvel of complexity. Its first stage was developed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The upper-stage development was managed by the Lewis Flight Propulsion Center, now known as NASA's Glenn Research Center, in Ohio in partnership with North American Aviation and Douglas Aircraft Corporation, while Boeing integrated the whole vehicle. The engines were tested at what is now NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and the rocket was transported in pieces by water for assembly at Cape Kennedy, now NASA's Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. As the Saturn V was being developed and tested, NASA also developed a smaller, interim vehicle known as the Saturn I and started using it to test Apollo hardware. A Saturn I first flew the Apollo command module design in 1964.

Unfortunately, one crewed test of the Apollo command module turned tragic in February 1967, when a fire erupted in the capsule and killed all three astronauts who had been designated as the prime crew for what became known as Apollo 1. The command module design was altered in response, delaying the first crewed Apollo launch by 21 months. In the meantime, NASA flew several uncrewed Apollo missions to test the Saturn V. The first crewed Apollo launch became Apollo 7, flown on a Saturn IB, and proved that the redesigned command module would support its crew while remaining in Earth orbit. Next, Earth-Moon trajectories were calculated for this large capsule, and the Saturn V powered Apollo 8 set off for the Moon, proving that the calculations were accurate, orbiting the Moon was feasible and a safe return to Earth was possible. Apollo 8 also provided the first TV broadcast from lunar orbit. The next few Apollo missions further proved the technology and allowed humans to practice procedures that would be needed for an eventual Moon landing.

On July 16, 1969, a Saturn V rocket launched three astronauts to the Moon on Apollo 11 from Cape Kennedy. The Apollo 11 spacecraft had three parts: a command module, called "Columbia," with a cabin for the three astronauts; a service module that provided propulsion, electricity, oxygen and water; and a lunar module, "Eagle," that provided descent to the lunar surface and ascent back to the command and service modules.

Collage of three images showing the lunar module during its descent to the Moon, on the lunar surface and during its ascent.

In this image collage, the Apollo 11 lunar module is shown on its descent to the Moon (left), on the lunar surface as Buzz Aldrin descends the stairs (middle), and on its ascent back to the command module (right). Image credit: NASA | › View full image collection

On July 20, while astronaut and command module pilot Michael Collins orbited the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Eagle on the Moon and set foot on the surface, accomplishing a first for humankind. They collected regolith (surface "dirt") and rock samples, set up experiments, planted an American flag and left behind medallions honoring the Apollo 1 crew and a plaque that read, "We came in peace for all mankind."

Collage of images showing Buzz Aldrin doing various activities on the Moon.

This collage of images from the Apollo 11 Moon landing shows Buzz Aldrin posing for a photo on the Moon (left), and setting up the solar wind and seismic experiments (middle). The image on the right shows the plaque the team placed on Moon to commemorate the historic event. Image credit: NASA | › View full image collection

After 21.5 hours on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin rejoined Collins in the Columbia command module and, on July 21, headed back to Earth. On July 24, after jettisoning the service module, Columbia entered Earth's atmosphere. With its heat shield facing forward to protect the astronauts from the extreme friction heating outside the capsule, the craft slowed and a series of parachutes deployed. The module splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean, 380 kilometers (210 nautical miles) south of Johnston Atoll. Because scientists were uncertain about contamination from the Moon, the astronauts donned biological-isolation garments delivered by divers from the recovery ship, the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet. The astronauts boarded a life raft and then the USS Hornet, where the outside of their biological-isolation suits were washed down with disinfectant. To be sure no contamination was brought back to Earth from the Moon, the astronauts were quarantined until Aug. 10, at which point scientists determined the risk was low that biological contaminants or microbes had returned with the astronauts. Columbia was also disinfected and is now part of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

On the left, a capsule floats in the ocean while astronauts sit in a raft in a gray suits. On the right, the three astronauts smile while looking out of a small window and while Nixon faces them with a microphone in front of him.

These side-by-side images show the Apollo 11 astronauts leaving the capsule in their biological isolation garments after successfully splashing down in the South Pacific Ocean (left). At right, President Richard M. Nixon welcomes the Apollo 11 astronauts, (left to right) Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, while they peer through the window of the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS Hornet. Image credit: NASA | › View full image collection

The Apollo program continued with six more missions to the Moon over the next three years. Astronauts placed seismometers to measure "moonquakes" and other science instruments on the lunar surface, performed science experiments, drove a carlike moon buggy on the surface, planted additional flags and returned more lunar samples to Earth for study.

Why It's Important

Apollo started out as a demonstration of America's technological, economic and political prowess, which it accomplished with the first Moon landing. But the Apollo missions accomplished even more in the realm of science and engineering.

Some of the earliest beneficiaries of Apollo research were Earth scientists. The Apollo 7 and 9 missions, which stayed in Earth orbit, took photographs of Earth in different wavelengths of light, highlighting things that might not be seen on the ground, like diseased trees and crops. This research led directly to the joint NASA-U.S. Geological Survey Landsat program, which has been studying Earth's resources from space for more than 45 years.

Samples returned from the Moon continue to be studied by scientists around the world. As new tools and techniques are developed, scientists can learn even more about our Moon, discovering clues to our planet's origins and the formation of the solar system. Additionally, educators can be certified to borrow lunar samples for use in their classrooms.

The Apollo 11 astronauts crowd around a lunar sample contained in a protective case.

The Apollo 11 astronauts take a closer look at a sample they brought back from the Moon. Image credit: NASA | › View full image collection

Perhaps the most important scientific finding came from comparing similarities in the composition of lunar and terrestrial rocks and then noting differences in the amount of specific substances. This suggested a new theory of the Moon's formation: that it accreted from debris ejected from Earth by a collision with a Mars-size object early in our planet's 4.5-billion-year history.

The 12 astronauts who walked on the Moon are the best-known faces of the Apollo program, but in numbers, they were also the smallest part of the program. About 400,000 men and women worked on Apollo, building the vehicles, calculating trajectories, even making and packing food for the crews. Many of them worked on solving a deceptively simple question: "How do we guide astronauts to the Moon and back safely?" Some built the spacecraft to carry humans to the Moon, enable surface operations and safely return astronauts to Earth. Others built the rockets that would launch these advanced spacecraft. In doing all this, NASA engineers and scientists helped lead the computing revolution from transistors to integrated circuits, the forebears to the microchip. An integrated circuit – a miniaturized electronic circuit that is used in nearly all electronic equipment today – is lighter weight, smaller and able to function on less power than the older transistors and capacitors. To suit the needs of the space capsule, NASA developed integrated circuits for use in the capsule's onboard computers. Additionally, computing advancements provided NASA with software that worked exactly as it was supposed to every time. That software lead to the development of the systems used today in retail credit-card swipe devices.

Some lesser-known benefits of the Apollo program include the technologies that commercial industries would then further advance to benefit humans right here on Earth. These "spinoffs" include technology that improved kidney dialysis, modernized athletic shoes, improved home insulation, advanced commercial and residential water filtration, and developed the freeze-drying technique for preserving foods.

Apollo was succeeded by missions that have continued to build a human presence in space and advance technologies on Earth. Hardware developed for Apollo was used to build America's first Earth-orbiting space station, Skylab. After Skylab, during the Apollo-Soyuz test project, American and Soviet spacecraft docked together, laying the groundwork for international cooperation in human spaceflight. American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts worked together aboard the Soviet space station Mir, performing science experiments and learning about long-term space travel's effects on the human body. Eventually, the U.S. and Russia, along with 13 other nations, partnered to build and operate the International Space Station, a world-class science laboratory orbiting 400 kilometers (250 miles) above Earth, making a complete orbit every 90 minutes.

Graphic showing a possible configuration for the future lunar gateway

Although the configuration is not final, this infographic shows the current lineup of parts comprising the lunar Gateway. Image credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

And the innovations continue today. NASA is planning the Artemis mission to put humans on the Moon again in 2024 with innovative new technologies and the intent of establishing a permanent human presence. Working in tandem with commercial and international partners, NASA will develop the Space Launch System launch vehicle, Orion crew capsule, a new lunar lander and other operations hardware. The lunar Gateway – a small spaceship that will orbit the Moon and include living quarters for astronauts, a lab for science, and research and ports for visiting spacecraft – will provide access to more of the lunar surface than ever before. While at the Moon, astronauts will research ways to use lunar resources for survival and further technological development. The lessons and discoveries from Artemis will eventually pave a path for a future human mission to Mars.

Teach It

Use these standards-aligned lessons to help students learn more about Earth's only natural satellite:

As students head out for the summer, get them excited to learn more about the Moon and human exploration using these student projects:

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Classroom, Engineering, Science, Students, Projects, Moon, Apollo, Summer

  • Ota Lutz
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Brittney Cooper stands in a sandy area holding a controller attached to a rover

Brittney Cooper loves studying weather – and she's taking that passion all the way to Mars. A graduate student at York University in Toronto, Cooper has spent the past two years working with the science team for NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. In January, she authored her first science paper on a study she designed with the Curiosity team that looked at how clouds scatter light and what that tells us about the shapes of their ice crystals. Despite her involvement in the Curiosity mission, the Canada native has never actually been to a NASA center. But that's about to change this summer when she'll embark on her first internship at JPL in Pasadena, California. We caught up with Cooper to find out what she's looking forward to most about her internship and how she's planning to take her studies of Martian clouds even farther.

You're currently earning your master's at York University in Toronto. What are you studying and what got you interested in that field?

I'm doing my master's in Earth and space science. But if you really want an interesting story [laughs] … I've always been interested in astronomy, space and science, but I also really love art. Coming to the end of high school, I realized that maybe it was going to be too hard for me to pursue science. Maybe I was a little scared and I didn't really think I was going to be able to do it. So I went to university for photography for two years. After two years, I realized photography wasn't challenging me in the right ways and wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I left. I did night school to get credits for calculus and all the grade-12 physics and chemistry that I needed to pursue a degree in atmospheric science, which is not even remotely astronomy, but I've also always loved weather – pretty much anything in the sky. I still had a passion for astronomy, so I started volunteering at the Allan I. Carswell observatory at York. There, I met a professor who I ended up doing research with for many years. He told me, "There's the field called planetary science, where you can study the atmospheres of other planets and you can kind of marry those two fields that you're interested in [astronomy and atmospheric science]." So I ended up adding an astronomy major.

Brittney Copper stands in the snow surrounded by pine trees and holds out a device to measure the flux of solar radiation

Cooper measures the downward flux of solar radiation during a winter snow survey. Image courtesy Brittney Cooper | + Expand image

Later, I started doing research with this professor, John Moores, as an undergrad. In my last year, there was a Ph.D. student who was a participating scientist on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission and he was graduating. John had said something along the lines of, "There's an opening, and I know it's always been your dream to work in mission control, so do you want to be on the mission?" And I was, like, "Yes, I definitely do!" I couldn't believe it. And I was never intending to do a master's, but then I realized I really loved the work I was doing, working on constraining physical properties of Martian water-ice clouds using the Mars Curiosity rover. We got to design this observation, which ran on the rover, and then I got to work with the data from it, which was really cool. So I stayed on to do my master's, and I'm still on the mission, which is pretty awesome.

In January you authored your first science paper on that research. Tell me more about that.

A black and white animated image showing light, wispy clouds moving across the Martian sky

Wispy clouds float across the Martian sky in this accelerated sequence of images from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/York University | › Full image and caption

My research focuses on the physical scattering properties of Martian water-ice clouds. A lot of people don't even realize that there are clouds on Mars, which I totally get because Mars doesn't have much of an atmosphere. But it does have enough of an atmosphere to create very thin, wispy, almost cirrus-like clouds similar to the ones we have on Earth. They're made up of small, water-ice crystals. These kinds of clouds do have a noticeable impact on Earth's climate, so we have now started thinking about what these clouds are doing in Mars' climate. The scattering properties can tell us a bit about that. They can tell us how much radiation is scattered back to space by these clouds or kept in Mars' atmosphere and whether or not we can see really fun things like halos, glories and different types of optical phenomena that we can see here on Earth.

We designed this observation that uses the Navcam imager on Curiosity. The engineering folks with the mission helped us design it. I got to present at a science discussion, which was superscary, but everyone was so kind. And then the observation was approved to run on Mars once a week from September 2017 to March 2018. During this observation window, Curiosity would take images of the sky to capture clouds at as many different scattering angles as possible. Once we got all the data back, we were able to constrain the dominant ice crystal shapes in the clouds based upon this thing called the phase function, which tells you how these clouds scatter light and radiation. I was the lead author on the research paper that came from that, and it got accepted. We started working on this right when I was really new to the mission, and it was my first paper. I couldn't believe everyone wasn't, like, "Who the heck are you? Why are we going to let you do anything?" But everyone was so kind, and it was just such a great experience.

What was the hardest part about writing that first paper?

The hardest part was probably just getting over the fear of thinking people aren't going to listen to you or you aren't going to be smart enough or you won't be able to answer questions. It was really just getting over my own fears and worries and not holding myself back because of them. I have a really great mentor who pushed me to do all these things, so I was able to suck it up and say, "If he believes in me and he thinks I can do it, maybe he's right." Every time I did a presentation or I would talk about the observation or try to advocate for it, I was just met with such positivity that I was, like, "OK, these fears are rooted in nothing."

In July, you're coming to JPL for your first internship here. What will you be working on?

Yes, I'm so excited! I'll be working with two scientists, Michael Mischna and Manuel de la Torre Juarez. We're going to be working with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, or REMS, which is an instrument on Curiosity that measures the temperature, relative humidity and pressure around the rover on Mars. From those measurements, we're going to try to infer the presence of clouds at night. So far, the way we've used Curiosity to study clouds is with optical instruments [or cameras]. So we take pictures of the clouds. But that's not really something we can do at night. So using REMS and its temperature sensors at night, we can try to see if clouds around the rover are emitting infrared radiation, heating up the atmosphere around the rover. We can try to detect them that way. So that's what we're going to try to do – look for some patterns and see what we can come up with. We'll also be comparing what we find with data from NASA's Mars Climate Sounder, which is in orbit around Mars and takes nighttime measurements of the atmosphere.

What are you most excited about coming to JPL?

I would be lying if I said it wasn't just getting to come to a NASA center – especially as a Canadian. It's every little space enthusiast's dream. I'm also excited to meet all the people who I've been working with for the last two years. The people are such an awesome part of this mission that I've been a part of. So I'm looking forward to meeting them in person and working with them in a closer way.

What do you see as the ultimate goal of your research?

We're just trying to better understand Mars. It's kind of a crazy place. There is a lot of evidence that shows us that there's a lot more going on than we know now and it's just about trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. There are also a lot of similarities to Earth. So we can try to take what we learn about Mars and apply it to our planet as well.

What's your ultimate career goal?

What I would really love is to work in spacecraft operations. I absolutely love working in science and working with data, but getting a chance to be a part of this mission and do operations – be part of a team and do multidisciplinary work – it's so exciting, and it's something that I never thought that I'd get to experience. And now that I've had a bit of a taste, I'm wanting more. So that's what I'm hoping for in the future.

Do you ever think about how you moved away from studying photography but are using photography to do science on Mars?

Yes! Every once in a while, that hits me, and I think to myself, "That's so cool." It's just very, very cool. Ten years ago, I never thought I'd be where I am now. But also just to know that there's that connection, that I'm working with visual data, with optical data – I don't think it's a coincidence. I really love working with images, so I think it's pretty cool that I get to do that.

Just one last fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Without a doubt, it would have to be [Saturn's moon] Titan. I actually would probably go there to study the atmosphere. The first research project that I ever did was trying to find methane and ethane fog on Titan and the surface data was quite limited, so I would like to go there. I want to see water-ice rocks. I want to see methane lakes and methane rain, set up a little vacation spot there [laughs].


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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.

TAGS: Higher Education, College, Internships, Interns, Students, Science, Mars, Rovers, Weather

  • Kim Orr
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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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