Collage of images and graphics from the InSight Mars lander mission. Links to full images and descriptions in caption.

As NASA retires its InSight Mars lander, here's a look at some of the biggest discoveries from the first mission designed to study the Red Planet's interior – plus, how to make connections to what students are learning now.


After more than four years listening to the “heartbeat” of Mars, NASA is saying goodbye to the InSight lander as the mission on the Red Planet comes to an end. On Dec. 21, 2022 scientists wrapped up the first-of-its-kind mission to study the interior of Mars as dust in the Martian atmosphere and on the spacecraft’s solar panels prevented the lander from generating enough power to continue.

Read on to learn how the mission worked, what it discovered, and how to bring the science and engineering of the mission into the classroom.

How It Worked

The lander is showin on the surface of Mars with a cutaway view of the Martian interior and core below the spacecraft. SEIS and HP3 are resting on the surface in front of the spacecraft and attached to InSight with long leash-like teathers. RISE juts out like a speaker from the flat top of the spacecraft between its two wing-like solar panels.

The locations of InSight's three main science tools, SEIS, HP3, and RISE are labeled in this illustration of the lander on Mars. | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

The InSight lander was designed to reveal the processes that led to the formation of Mars – as well as Earth, the Moon, and all rocky worlds. This meant meeting two main science goals.

First, scientists wanted to understand how Mars formed and evolved. To do that, they needed to investigate the size and make-up of Mars’ core, the thickness and structure of its crust, the structure of the mantle layer, the warmth of the planet's interior, and the amount of heat flowing through the planet.

Second, to study tectonic activity on Mars, scientists needed to determine the power, frequency, and location of “marsquakes” as well as measure how often meteoroids impacted the Red Planet, creating seismic waves.

Engineers equipped InSight with three main science tools that would allow researchers to answer these questions about Mars.

SEIS, a seismometer like the ones used on Earth to record earthquakes, measured the seismic waves on Mars. These waves, which travel through the Red Planet, can tell scientists a lot about the areas they pass through. They even carry clues about whether it was a marsquake or meteorite impact that created the waves.

InSight captured these images of clouds drifting in the distance, visible just beyond the dome-like top of the SEIS instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

InSight's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, was an instrument designed to burrow 16 feet (five meters) into Mars to measure the temperature at different depths and monitor how heat flowed out toward the surface. However, the self-hammering probe, informally called the "mole," struggled to dig itself in due to the unexpected consistency of the top few inches of Mars regolith at the landing site. Using full-size models of the lander and probe, engineers recreated InSight’s environment here on Earth to see if they could find a solution to the issue. They tested solutions that would allow the probe to penetrate the surface, including pressing the scoop attached to InSight’s robotic arm against the probe. While the effort serves as a great real-world example of how engineers work through problems with distant spacecraft, ultimately, none of the solutions allowed the probe to dig past the surface when attempted on Mars.

In 2019, InSight mission scientist/engineer Troy Hudson shared the game plan for getting the mission's heat probe digging again on Mars. Ultimately, the team wasn't able to to get the "mole" working, but the effort is a great real-world example of how engineers work through problems with distant spacecraft. | Watch on YouTube

InSight’s third experiment, called RISE, used the spacecraft’s radio antennas to precisely measure the lander's position on the surface of Mars. The interior structure of Mars affects the planet’s motion, causing it to wobble. Measuring InSight’s position as the planet wobbled helped scientists gain a better understanding of the core and other layered structures that exist within the interior of Mars.

What We Discovered

A cutaway view of the interior of Mars shows a crust that is 0-25 mi (0-40 km) deep, an upper mantle that is 25-630 mi (40-1,015 km) deep; a transition zone that is 630-970 mi (1,015-1,560 km) deep, and a Core that is 970-2,105 mi (1,560-3,390 km) deep. Meteor impacts are shown as the sources of seismic activity. A separate inset shows InSight on the surface of a cutaway view of Mars' interior with lines representing Direct P, S waves extending from the upper mantle, through the curst, to SEIS on the surface.

Using its seismometer, InSight gained a deeper understanding of the interior layers of Mars, as detailed in this graphic. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

InSight’s instruments enabled the mission science team to gain an understanding of not only the depth of Mars’ crust, mantle, and core, but also the composition of those features. They also learned just how active Mars really is.

The Structure of Mars

Working our way from the surface to the center of the planet, scientists found Mars’ crust was thinner than expected. Seismic waves detected by SEIS indicate that the crust is made up of three sub-layers, similar to Earth’s crust. The top-most layer of the crust is about six miles (10 kilometers) deep, while the denser layers of the crust, which contain more felsic, or iron-rich, material extend downward to about 25 miles (40 kilometers) below the surface. As seismic waves from a marsquake or a meteorite impact spread across the surface and through the interior of the planet, they can reflect off of underground layers, giving scientists views into the unseen materials below. Measuring how the waves change as a result of these reflections is how scientists unveiled the underground structure of Mars.

Like Earth, Mars has a lithosphere, a rigid layer made up of the crust and upper mantle. The Martian lithosphere extends about 310 miles (500 kilometers) below the surface before it transitions into the remaining mantle layer, which is relatively cool compared with Earth’s mantle. Mars’ mantle extends to 969 miles (1,560 kilometers) below the surface where it meets the planet’s core.

The InSight lander is shown on the surface of Mars, where circular lines radiate out from a central point. The interior of Mars is shown with lines flowing left and right from the same central point and extending from the crust into Mars’ mantle down to its large central core. In the background, a cutaway shows the interior of Earth with more interior layers and a smaller core. Full problem text is available on the lesson page.

In this lesson from the "Pi in the Sky" math challenge, students use measurements from InSight along with pi to calculate the density of Mars' core. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › Go to the lesson

Scientists measured the core of Mars and found it to be larger than expected, with a radius of 1,137 miles (1,830 kilometers). With this information, scientists were able to estimate the density of Mars' core, which turned out to be less dense than anticipated, meaning it contains lighter elements mixed in with iron. Scientists also confirmed that the planet contains a liquid core. While we know that Earth has a liquid outer core and solid inner core, scientists will need to further study the data returned from InSight to know if there is also a solid inner core on Mars.

As scientists continue to study the data returned from InSight, we could learn even more about how Mars formed, how its magnetic field developed, and what materials make up the core, which could ultimately help us better understand how Earth and other planets formed.

Marsquakes

InSight discovered that Mars is a very active planet. A total of 1,319 marsquakes were detected after the SEIS instrument was placed on the surface. The largest, which was estimated to be a magnitude 5, was detected in May of 2022.

Unlike Earth, where the crust is broken into large pieces called plates that continually shift around causing earthquakes, Mars’ crust is made up of one solid plate, somewhat like a shell. However, as the planet cools, the crust shrinks, creating breaks called faults. This breaking action is what causes marsquakes, and the seismic waves generated by the quakes are what help scientists figure out when and where the quakes occurred and how powerful they were.

A target symbol representing a marsquake appears on the other side of Mars from InSight. Pink and blue lines representing different waves extend around Mars from the left and right, respectively, of the epicenter. A green line extends from SEIS all the way around Mars and back to the instrument. An inset appears on top of SEIS that shows a recording of the wave measurements.

In this math problem from the "Pi in the Sky" series, students use pi to identify the timing and location of a hypothetical marsquake recorded by InSight. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image | › Go to the lesson

Nearly all of the strongest marsquakes detected by InSight came from a region known as Cerberus Fossae, a volcanic region that may have had lava flows within the past few million years. Volcanic activity, even without lava flowing on the surface, can be another way marsquakes occur. Images from orbiting spacecraft show boulders that have fallen from cliffs in this region, perhaps shaken loose by large marsquakes.

This seismogram shows the largest quake ever detected on another planet. Estimated at magnitude 5, this quake was discovered by InSight on May 4, 2022. Listen to a sonification of this seismogram. | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

Conversely, InSight didn't detect any quakes in the volcanic region known as Tharsis, the home of three of Mars’ largest volcanos that sit approximately one-third of the way around the planet from InSight. This doesn’t necessarily mean the area is not seismically active. Scientists think there may be quakes occurring, but the size of Mars’ liquid core creates what’s known as a shadow zone – an area into which seismic waves don’t pass – at InSight's location.

Meteorite Impacts

On Sept. 5, 2021, InSight detected the impacts of a meteoroid that entered the Martian atmosphere. The meteoroid exploded into at least three pieces that reached the surface and left behind craters. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the impact sites to capture images of the three new craters and confirm their locations.

A direct overhead view of a light-gray-colored cratered surface is interrupted by three black splotches of increasing size from left to right. At the center of each dark scar is a royal blue splotch. The surface around the blue center looks as if it's been sprayed with a dark material that extends farther on the right side of each crater than on the left.

This image, captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows the craters (in blue) formed by a meteroid impact on Mars on Sept. 5, 2021. The impact was the first to be detected by InSight. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

“After three years of waiting for an impact, those craters looked beautiful,” said Ingrid Daubar of Brown University, a Mars impacts specialist.

Mars’ thin atmosphere, which is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s, means meteoroids have a better chance of not disintegrating in the heat and pressure that builds up as they pass through the atmosphere to the planet’s surface. Despite this fact and Mars' proximity to the asteroid belt, the planet proved to be a challenging location to detect meteorite impacts because of "noise" in the data created by winds blowing on SEIS and seasonal changes in the atmosphere.

With the confirmation of the September 2021 impacts, scientists were able to identify a telltale seismic signature to these meteorite impacts. With this information in hand, they looked back through InSight's data and found three more impacts – one in 2020 and two in 2021. Scientists anticipate finding even more impacts in the existing data that might have been hidden by the noise in the data.

Three overhead images of a brown cratered surfaces with a bright blue-colored crater at the center. Surrounding the crater in each image is a splotch of different colored material sprayed out in all directions.

This collage shows three other meteoroid impacts on Mars that were detected by the seismometer on InSight and captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

Meteorite impacts are an invaluable piece of understanding the planet’s surface. On a planet like Earth, wind, rain, snow and ice wear down surface features in a process known as weathering. Plate tectonics and active volcanism refresh Earth’s surface regularly. Mars’ surface is older and doesn't go through those same processes, so a record of past geologic events like meteorite impacts is more apparent on the planet's surface. By counting impact craters visible on Mars today, scientists can update their models and better estimate the number of impacts that occurred in the early solar system. This gives them an improved approximation of the age of the planet’s surface.

Learn how InSight detected the first seismic waves from a meteoroid on Mars and how the lander captured the sound of the space rock striking the surface. | Watch on YouTube

Why It's Important

Before InSight touched down, all Mars missions – landers, rovers, orbiters and flyby spacecraft – studied the surface and atmosphere of the planet. InSight was the first mission to study the deep interior of Mars.

Even with the InSight mission drawing to a close, the science and engineering of the mission will continue to inform our understanding of the Red Planet and our solar system for years as researchers further examine the data returned to Earth. Keep up to date with the latest findings from InSight scientists and engineers on the mission website.

Teach It

Explore these lessons in geology, physics, math, coding and engineering to connect student learning to the InSight mission and the real-world STEM that happens at NASA.

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Classrooms, Teaching, Teachers, Resources, Teachable Moments, Mars, InSight, Missions, Spacecraft, Marsquakes

  • Lyle Tavernier
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A rectangular box-shaped spacecraft with long arms extending from either side. Above the arms are wing-like solar panels extending in the opposite direction. The curvature of Earth and wispy clouds are depicted just below the spacecraft.

Explore how and why the SWOT mission will take stock of Earth's water budget, what it could mean for assessing climate change, and how to bring it all to students.

Update: Dec. 15, 2022 – NASA, the French space agency, and SpaceX are now targeting 3:46 a.m. PST (6:46 a.m. EST) on Friday, Dec.16, for the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite. Visit NASA's SWOT launch blog for the latest updates.


NASA is launching an Earth-orbiting mission that will map the planet’s surface water resources better than ever before. Scheduled to launch on Dec. 16 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT mission is the latest international collaboration designed to monitor and report on our home planet. By providing us with a highly detailed 3D view of rivers, lakes, and oceans, SWOT promises to improve our understanding of Earth’s water cycle and the role oceans play in climate change, as well as help us better respond to drought and flooding.

Read on to find out why we're hoping to learn more about Earth's surface water, get to know the science behind SWOT's unique design, and follow along with STEM teaching and learning resources.

Why It's Important

Observing Earth from space provides scientists with a global view that is important for understanding the whole climate system. In the case of SWOT, we will be able to monitor Earth’s surface water with unprecedented detail and accuracy. SWOT will provide scientists with measurements of water volume change and movement that will inform our understanding of fresh water availability, flood hazards, and the mechanisms of climate change.

Scientists and engineers provide an overview of the SWOT mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Water Flow

Scientists use a variety of methods to track Earth’s water. These include stream and lake gauges and even measurements from space such as sea surface altimetry and gravitational measurements of aquifer volumes. Monitoring of river flow and lake volume is important because it can tell us how much freshwater is readily available and at what locations. River flow monitoring can also help us make inferences about the downstream environmental impact. But monitoring Earth’s surface water in great detail with enough frequency to track water movement has proven challenging. Until now, most monitoring of river flow and lake levels has relied on water-flow and water-level gauges placed across Earth, which requires that they be accessible and maintained. Not all streams and lakes have gauges and previous space-based altimetry and gravitational measurements, though useful for large bodies of water, have not been able to adequately track the constant movement of water through smaller rivers or lakes.

Here's why understanding Earth’s "water budget" is an important part of understanding our planet and planning for future water needs.

SWOT will be able to capture these measurements across the globe in 3D every 21 days. The mission will monitor how much water is flowing through hundreds of thousands of rivers wider than 330 feet (100 meters) and keep a close watch on the levels of more than a million lakes larger than 15 acres (6 hectares). Data from the mission will be used to create detailed maps of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs that will enable accurate monitoring to provide a view of freshwater resources that is not reliant on physical access. Meanwhile, SWOT’s volumetric measurements of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs will help hydrologists better track drought and flooding impacts in near-real-time.

Coastal Sea Level Rise

SWOT will measure our oceans with unprecedented accuracy, revealing details of ocean features as small as 9 miles (15 kilometers) across. SWOT will also monitor sea levels and tides. Though we have excellent global sea level data, we do not have detailed sea level measurements near coastlines. Coastal sea levels vary across the globe as a result of ocean currents, weather patterns, land changes, and other factors. Sea levels are rising faster than ever, and higher sea levels also mean that hurricane storm surges will reach farther inland than ever before, causing substantially more damage than the same category of hurricanes in the past. SWOT will be able to monitor coastal sea level variations and fill gaps in the observations we currently have from other sources.

What is sea level rise and what does it mean for our planet? | › View Transcript

Ocean Heat Sinks

Further contributing to our understanding of the role Earth’s oceans play in climate change, SWOT will explore how the ocean absorbs atmospheric heat and carbon, moderating global temperatures and climate change. Scientists understand ocean circulation on a large scale and know that ocean currents are driven by temperature and salinity differences. However, scientists do not currently have a good understanding of fine-scale ocean currents, where most of the ocean's motion-related energy is stored and lost. Circulation at these fine scales is thought to be responsible for transporting half of the heat and carbon from the upper ocean to deeper layers. Such downward ocean currents have helped to mitigate the decades-long rise in global air temperatures by absorbing and storing heat and carbon away from the atmosphere. Knowing more about this process is critical for understanding the mechanisms of global climate change.

JPL scientist Josh Willis uses a water balloon to show how Earth's oceans are absorbing most of the heat being trapped on our warming world. | › Related lesson

These fine-scale ocean currents also transport nutrients to marine life and circulate pollutants such as crude oil and debris. Understanding nutrient transport helps oceanographers assess ocean health and the productivity of fisheries. And tracking pollutants aids in natural hazard assessment, prediction, and response.

How It Works

A joint effort between NASA and the French space agency – with contributions from the Canadian and UK space agencies – SWOT will continue NASA’s decades-long record of monitoring sea surface height across the globe. But this mission will add a level of detail never before achieved.

SWOT will measure more than 90% of Earth’s surface water, scanning the planet between 78°N latitude and 78°S latitude within 1 centimeter of accuracy and retracing the same path every 21 days. Achieving this level of accuracy from a spacecraft height of 554 miles (891 kilometers) requires that the boom using radar to measure water elevation remain stable within 2 microns – or about 3% of the thickness of a human hair.

This visualization shows ocean surface currents around the world during the period from June 2005 through December 2007. With its new, high resolution wide-swath measurements, SWOT will be able to observe eddies and current features at greater resolution than previously possible. Credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio | Watch on YouTube

Prior to SWOT, spacecraft have used conventional nadir, or straight-down, altimetry to measure sea surface height. Conventional nadir altimetry sends a series of radar or laser pulses down to the surface and measures the time it takes for each signal to return to the spacecraft, thus revealing distances to surface features. To acquire more detailed information on surface water, SWOT will use an innovative instrument called the Ka-band Radar Interferometer, or KaRIn, to measure water height with exceptional accuracy. Ka-band is a portion of the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum. SWOT uses microwaves because they can penetrate clouds to return data about water surfaces.

A radar signal is sent straight down from the SWOT spacecraft as it flies over Earth. Beams are shown bouncing back to receivers on either side of the spacecraft. The section of Earth measured by the spacecraft is shown as two side-by-side tracks colored in as a heatmap. The camera zooms out to show these tracks criscrossing the planet and eventually covering a majority of the surface.

SWOT will track Earth's surface water in incredible detail using an innovative instrument called the Ka-band Radar Interferometer, or KaRIn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The KaRIn instrument uses the principles of synthetic aperture radar combined with interferometry to measure sea surface height. A radar signal is emitted from the end of the 10-meter-wide boom on the spacecraft. The reflected signal is then received by antennas on both ends of the boom, capturing data from two 30-mile (50-kilometer) wide swaths on either side of the spacecraft. The received signals will be slightly out of sync, or phase, from one another because they will travel different distances to return to the receivers on either end of the boom. Knowing the phase difference, the distance between the antennas, and the radar wavelength allows us to calculate the distance to the surface.

The first of three images shows two paths of different lengths extending diagonally from a point on Earth’s surface to receivers on either side of the SWOT spacecraft. A second image shows the paths as light waves that are slightly out of phase. The third image shows a line drawn directly from the rightmost receiver to the path leading to the leftmost receiver, such that the intersected paths from Earth are equal in length. The upper triangle formed by this intersection has a short leg, highlighted in yellow, that represents the remaining length of the leftmost path. The yellow short leg represents the range difference between the two paths from Earth.

Radar signals bounced off the water’s surface will be received by antennas on both ends of SWOT's 10-meter-wide boom. The received signals will be slightly out of phase because they will travel different distances as they return to the receivers. Scientists use this phase difference and the radar wavelength to calculate the distance to the surface. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The observations acquired by the two antennas can be combined into what is known as an interferogram. An interferogram is a pattern of wave interference that can reveal more detail beyond the 1-centimeter resolution captured by the radar. To explain how it works, we'll recall a couple of concepts from high school physics. When out-of-phase waves from the two antennas are combined, constructive and destructive interference patterns result in some wave crests being higher and some wave troughs being lower than those of the original waves. The patterns that result from the combination of the waves reveal more detail with resolution better than the 1-centimeter wavelength of the original Ka-band radar waves because the interference occurs over a portion of a wavelength. An interferogram can be coupled with elevation data to reveal a 3D representation of the water’s surface.

A diagram illustrating the swaths of data that SWOT will collect, including labels for the following: 10 m baseline between SWOT's receivers; a distance of 891 km between the surface and Interferometer Antenna 1; Interferometer Left Swath resulting in ocean topography with an H-Pol swath of 10-60 km; Interferometer Right Swath resulting in surface water topography with a V-Pol of 10-60 km; a straight-down Nadir Altimeter path directly below the spacecraft in the gap between the swaths; a cross-track resolution from 70m to 10m.

The KaRIn instrument illuminates two parallel tracks of approximately 50 kilometres on either side of a nadir track from a traditional altimeter. The signals are received by two antennas 10 metres apart and are then processed to yield interferometry measurements. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

This highly accurate 3D view of Earth’s surface water is what makes SWOT so unique and will enable scientists to more closely monitor the dynamics of the water cycle. In addition to observing ocean currents and eddies that will inform our understanding of the ocean’s role in climate change, SWOT's use of interferometry will allow scientists to track volumetric changes in lakes and quantify river flooding, tasks that cannot yet be done on a wide scale in any other way.

A colorful swath of yellows, oranges, magentas, purples is overlaid horizontally on a satellite image of desert landscape with thin yellow and red lines cutting diagonally across the image. On the center-left of the image, the colors fan out like a rainbow sprinkler. On the left side of the swath are a cluster of yellow dots.

This interferogram was captured by the air-based UAVSAR instrument of the magnitude 7.2 Baja California earthquake of April 4, 2010. The interferogram is overlaid atop a Google Earth image of the region. Image credit: NASA/JPL/USGS/Google | › Learn more

Follow Along

SWOT is scheduled to launch no earlier than Dec. 16, 2022, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Tune in to watch the launch on NASA TV.

After launch, the spacecraft will spend 6-months in a calibration and validation phase, during which it will make a full orbit of Earth every day at an altitude of 553 miles (857 kilometers). Upon completion of this phase, SWOT will increase its altitude to 554 miles (891 kilometers) and assume a 21-day repeat orbit for the remainder of its mission.

Visit the mission website to follow along as data are returned and explore the latest news, images, and updates as SWOT provides a new view on one of our planet's most important resources.

Teach It

The SWOT mission is the perfect opportunity to engage students in studying Earth’s water budget and water cycle. Explore these lessons and resources to get students excited about the STEM involved in studying Earth’s water and climate change from space.

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TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Educators, Earth Science, Earth, Climate Change, Climate, Satellites, Teachable Moments

  • Ota Lutz
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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.

Teach It

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.

Educator Guides

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Student Activities

Articles

Resources for Kids

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

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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
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Collage of images from the events and lessons featured in this article.

With 180 lessons in our online catalog, you can explore Earth and space with us all year long. We show you how with this handy NASA-JPL school year calendar.


We just added the 180th lesson to our online catalog of standards-aligned STEM lessons, which means JPL Education now has a lesson for every day of the school year. To celebrate and help you make the year ahead stellar, we've put together this monthly calendar of upcoming NASA events along with links to our related lessons, Teachable Moments articles, and student projects you can use to engage students in STEM while they explore Earth and space with us all year long.


August

The Voyagers Turn 45

The twin Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 on a journey to explore the outer planets and beyond – and they're still going. Now more than 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from Earth in a region known as interstellar space, they're the most distant human-made objects in space.

Get a primer on these fascinating spacecraft from Teachable Moments, then use it as a jumping off point for lessons on the scale, size, and structure of our solar system and how we communicate with distant spacecraft.

Lessons & Resources:


September

Rendezvous with an Asteroid

A distant asteroid system 6.8 million miles (11 million kilometers) from Earth was the site of NASA's first attempt at redirecting an asteroid. On September 26, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, mission impacted the asteroid Dimorphos in an attempt to alter its speed and path around a larger asteroid known as Didymos. Dimorphos and Didymos do not pose a threat to Earth, which makes them a good proving ground for testing whether a similar technique could be used to defend Earth against potential impacts by hazardous asteroids in the future.

Get a primer on the DART mission and find related resources for the classroom in this article from our Teachable Moments series. Plus, explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons and activities all about asteroids to get students learning about different kinds of space rocks, geology, and meteoroid math.

Lessons & Resources:

A Closer Look at Europa

Just a few days later, on September 29, the Juno spacecraft that had been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 captured the closest views of Jupiter’s moon Europa in more than 20 years. The ice-covered moon is thought to contain a subsurface liquid-water ocean, making it an exciting new frontier in our search for life beyond Earth. NASA's Europa Clipper mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2024 is designed to study the moon in more detail. But until Europa Clipper arrives at the Jovian system in 2030, these observations from Juno are our best chance to get a closer look at this fascinating moon.

Learn more about Europa and why it is interesting to scientists in this talk from our Teaching Space With NASA series featuring a Europa Clipper mission scientist. Then, explore our Ocean Worlds Lesson Collection for ideas on making classroom connections.

Lessons & Resources:


October

Celebrate Halloween Like a Space Explorer

The month of October is the perfect time to get students exploring our STEM activities with a Halloween twist. Students can learn how to carve a pumpkin like a JPL engineer, take a tour of mysterious locations throughout the solar system, and dig into the geology inside their Halloween candy.

October 31 is also JPL's 86th birthday, which makes October a great time to learn more about JPL history, including the team of female mathematicians known as "human computers" who performed some of the earliest spacecraft-tracking calculations and the Laboratory's role in launching the first U.S. space satellite.

Lessons & Resources:


November

Watch a Total Lunar Eclipse

Look up in the early morning hours of November 8 to watch one of the most stunning spectacles visible from Earth: a total lunar eclipse. This one will be viewable in North and South America, as well as Asia and Australia.

Learn more about lunar eclipses and how to watch them from our Teachable Moments series. Then, get students of all ages outside and observing the Moon with lessons on moon phases and the hows and whys of eclipses. Students can even build a Moon calendar so they always know when and where to look for the next eclipse.

Lessons & Resources:

Artemis Takes a Giant Leap

NASA is making plans to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since 1972 – this time to establish a sustainable presence and prepare for future human missions to Mars. The first major step is Artemis I, which is testing three key components required to send astronauts beyond the Moon: the Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The uncrewed Artemis I mission marks the first test of all three components at once.

Get your K-12 students following along with lessons in rocketry and what it takes to live in space. Plus, register to follow along with the mission with resources and updates from NASA's Office of STEM Engagement.

Lessons & Resources:


December

Satellite Launches on a Mission to Follow the Water

As crucial as water is to human life, did you know that no one has ever completed a global survey of Earth’s surface water? That is about to change with the launch of the SWOT mission, scheduled for December 15. SWOT, which stands for Surface Water Ocean Topography, will use a state-of-the-art radar to measure the elevation of water in major lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs. It will also provide an unprecedented level of detail on the ocean surface. This data will help scientists track how these bodies of water are changing over time and improve weather and climate models.

Engage your students in learning about Earth’s water budget and how we monitor Earth from space with these lessons. And be sure to check out our Teachable Moments article for more about the SWOT mission and the science of our changing climate.

Update: Dec. 15, 2022 – NASA, the French space agency, and SpaceX are now targeting 3:46 a.m. PST (6:46 a.m. EST) on Friday, Dec.16, for the launch of the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite. Visit NASA's SWOT launch blog for the latest updates.

Lessons & Resources:

Prepare for the Science Fair

Before you know it, it'll be science fair time. Avoid the stress of science fair prep by getting students organized and thinking about their projects before the winter recess. Start by watching our video series How to Do a Science Fair Project. A scientist and an engineer from JPL walk your students through all the steps they will need to create an original science fair project by observing the world around them and asking questions. You can also explore our science fair starter pack of lessons and projects to get students generating ideas and thinking like scientists and engineers.

Lessons & Resources:


January

Explore STEM Careers

January is the time when many of us set goals for the year ahead, so it's the perfect month to get students exploring their career goals and opportunities in STEM. Students can learn more about careers in STEM and hear directly from scientists and engineers working on NASA missions in our Teaching Space video series. Meanwhile, our news page has more on what it takes to be a NASA astronaut and what it's like to be a JPL intern.

For students already in college and pursuing STEM degrees, now is the time to start exploring internship opportunities for the summer. The deadline for JPL summer internships is in March, so it's a good idea to refresh your resume and get your application started now. Learn how to stand out with this article on how to get an internship at JPL – which also includes advice for pre-college students.

Resources:


February

Mars Rover Celebrates 2-Year 'Landiversary'

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover celebrates its "landiversary" on February 18, which marks two years since the rover made its nail-biting descent on the Red Planet. The rover continues to explore Jezero Crater using science tools to analyze rocks and soil in search of signs of ancient microbial life. As of this writing, the rover has collected twelve rock core samples that will be sent to Earth by a future mission. Perseverance even witnessed a solar eclipse! Meanwhile, the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, which the rover deployed shortly after landing, has gone on to achieve feats of its own.

The Mission to Mars Student Challenge is a great way to get students of all ages exploring STEM and the Red Planet right along with the Perseverance rover. The challenge includes seven weeks of education content that can be customized for your classroom as well as education plans, expert talks, and resources from NASA.

Lessons & Resources:


March

Take On the Pi Day Challenge

Math teachers, pie-lovers, and pun-aficionados rejoice! March 14 is Pi Day, the annual celebration of the mathematical constant used throughout the STEM world – and especially for space exploration. This year's celebration brings the 10th installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge, featuring four new illustrated math problems involving pi along with NASA missions and science.

The new problems will make their debut on March 10, but you don't have to wait to get students using pi like NASA scientists and engineers. Explore our evergreen collection of Pi Day Challenge problems, get students learning about how we use pi at NASA, and hear from a JPL engineer on how many decimals of pi we use for space exploration.

Lessons & Resources:


April

Celebrate Earth Day With NASA

You may not immediately think of Earth science when you think of NASA, but it's a big part of what we do. Earth Day on April 22 is a great time to explore Earth science with NASA, especially as new missions are taking to the skies to study the movements of dust, measure surface water across the planet, and track tiny land movements to better predict natural disasters.

Whether you want to focus on Earth’s surface and geology, climate change, extreme weather, or the water budget, we have an abundance of lessons, student projects and Teachable Moments to guide your way.

Lessons & Resources:


May

Summer Learning Adventures

As the school year comes to a close, send your students off on an adventure of summer learning with our do-it-yourself STEM projects. Additionally, our Learning Space With NASA at Home page and video series is a great resource for parents and guardians to help direct their students' learning during out-of-school time.

Lessons & Resources:

TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Students, Lessons, Resources, Projects, Events, Artemis, Voyager, DART, Asteroids, Europa, Ocean Worlds, Halloween, History, Earth, Climate, SWOT, Lunar Eclipse, Science Fair, Career Advice, Mars, Perseverance, Pi Day, Earth Day, Summer STEM

  • Kim Orr
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Five students in sweatshirts and collared shirts pose for a selfie with Ms. Risbrough and JPL education specialist Brandon Rodriguez, all wearing masks.

A Los Angeles math teacher gets students engaged with connections to science and exploring the human side of math, such as how leaders inspire change in their communities.


Katherine Risbrough has been teaching high school math for almost 10 years. She began her teaching career in the Hickory Hill community of Memphis, Tennessee, where she taught everything from Algebra 1 to Calculus and served as a math coach for the district. Five years ago, she came to Los Angeles to teach Integrated Math and Calculus at Synergy Quantum Academy High School.

Outside of math, Ms. Risbrough is also a superfan of college football and never misses a game at her alma mater, the University of Southern California. Her fandom for making the game is rivaled only by her love of Harry Potter, having been to every midnight book and movie release.

I caught up with Ms. Risbrough to find out how she gets students excited about math, and I learned about a new strategy she used this past year: bridging math and science by teaming up with the AP Physics teacher. Her cross-discipline curriculum focused on helping students make connections between subjects and got them engaged as they returned from more than a year of remote learning.


Math can be intimidating for students and it can be difficult to keep them engaged. How do you get your students excited about math?

A student at a desk holds open a worksheet while Ms. Risbrough leans over and points to a section of the worksheet.

Ms. Risbrough works with one of her calculus students. Image courtesy: Katherine Risbrough | + Expand image

Sometimes it's easier said than done, but math needs to be as hands-on and discussion-based as possible. We use a lot of the calc-medic curriculum, which is application and discovery first followed by a whole class discussion to share ideas and cement new learning. When students have to speak and defend a hypothesis or an argument, they are practicing mathematical reasoning, which is a skill they can take into all STEM coursework. I avoid lectures as much as possible. We also do a lot of flipped classroom learning (videos at home and practice in class), group work, use technology, and do activities that get students moving around the classroom.

I believe that learning mathematics should be a collaborative, exploratory process and that every student already has the skills necessary to become a successful mathematician. It’s my job to give them opportunities to show off and strengthen those skills, so that they can be just as successful with or without me present to help them.

This year you’ve introduced some interesting projects to make your class more interdisciplinary. Tell me a bit more about that.

I’ve really focused on keeping the math contextualized by being sure the content is interdisciplinary. For example, over half of my AP Calculus students are also taking AP Physics. This year, in particular, I was sure to coordinate with the physics teacher to see how we could align our curriculum in kinematics with what we were doing with integrals and derivatives. This began with students doing JPL’s additive velocity lesson in their physics class to set the stage for how calculus ties together acceleration, velocity, and displacement.

Both classes are so challenging for students, but when they see how strategies in one class can help lift them in another, it’s almost as if they are getting to see two different strategies to solve the same problem. Designing challenges that could be solved with both physics and math gave the students an ability to approach problems from either side. At first, they were pretty intimidated to see their two most challenging classes teaming up, but the end result was some incredible student projects and dramatic improvement in their ability to graph out relationships.

I also kick off new units by making connections to students' own life or even their future careers. They need to know the “why” beyond just, “because you’ll be tested on it.” We try to talk about STEM historical figures and current leaders (specifically mathematicians and scientists of color) as often as possible. For example, I use clips from the movies "October Sky" and "Hidden Figures" to set the stage and then lead into projects about rocket trajectories and elliptical orbits.

Pieces of paper with math terms such as 'graph' and 'function' printed on them are taped to a desk. Lines and arrows drawn with marker connect that various pieces of paper and notes are written off to the side.

Students in Ms. Risbrough's class map out language and processes to better understand shapes and limits in functions. Image courtesy: Katherine Risbrough | + Expand image

This year, in calculus, we started the year with the idea of “Agents of Change” and looked at thought leaders such as veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa and climate scientist Nicole Hernandez Hammer and how their work relates to “instant rates of change” and “average rates of change” in calculus. Then, I had students think about moments of change in their life, and how that instant can be carried forward to a make a long term change in their careers and communities.

Coming back from COVID-19 and more than a year of remote instruction, how are your students adjusting to being back in the classroom?

Our students missed out on so many social and academic opportunities because of COVID, but they aren’t letting that stop them. The biggest struggle was starting off the school year and getting back into routines. Because of the demographics of our students, there have been more absences than usual, as many of our students help support their family at home. Many parents struggled to keep work through the pandemic, and a lot of my students work outside of school or take care of their siblings. The effects of caring for their families while still trying to focus on applying to college has really taken a toll on students.

I’m fortunate that so many kids are comfortable and open sharing feelings of increased anxiety, responsibility, or worry over the past two years. I believe it's important that my classroom and our group first and foremost be an escape from that space rather than an added stress. Their success in math – even a rigorous AP math class with a breakneck pace – comes from me being there for them as a person first and a teacher second. We focus so much on “catching them up” that we forget to take some time for them to process all they have had to manage.

A group of five students with long dark hair stand next to each other and Ms. Risbrough looking at a whiteboard with graphs drawn on it.

AP Calculus students graph out kinematics as examples of integrals and derivatives. Image courtesy: Katherine Risbrough | + Expand image

As we move toward graduation, what is one story of success that you will take away from this year?

Honestly, it's the success of my students. They have jumped into AP Calculus after 1.5 years of distance learning and the social-emotional learning burdens of Covid, and have done amazing work. They are thoughtful, persistent, and often learning multiple grades worth of skills within one calculus lesson. I guess I'm a small piece of that, but all that I've really done is give them space to explore, discuss, and learn. It's what they've done with that space that has been the best thing to watch!


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 education@jpl.nasa.gov.

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TAGS: Teachers, School, Classroom, Instruction, K-12, High School, Math, Calculus, Physics, Algebra, Lessons, Resources

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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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.

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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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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
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A small piece of the ISS is visible in the top corner of this view looking down from space station over Earth. A large cloud of dust takes half the view over Earth's surface.

A data map overlaid on the globe shows thick swirls of dust traveling from West Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to the Caribbean and Southern U.S.

Learn about the role that dust plays in Earth's climate, why scientists are interested in studying dust from space, and how to engage students in the science with STEM resources from JPL.


A NASA instrument launched to the International Space Station this summer will explore how dust impacts global temperatures, cloud formation, and the health of our oceans. The Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation, or EMIT, is the first instrument of its kind, designed to collect measurements from space of some of the most arid regions on Earth to understand the composition of soils that generate dust and the larger role dust plays in climate change.

Read on to find out how the instrument works and why scientists are hoping to learn more about the composition of dust. Then, explore how to bring the science into your classroom with related climate lessons that bridge physical sciences with engineering practices.

Why It’s Important

Scientists have long studied the movements of dust. The fact that dust storms can carry tiny particles great distances was reported in the scientific literature nearly two centuries ago by none other than Charles Darwin as he sailed across the Atlantic on the HMS Beagle. What still remains a mystery all these years later is what that dust is made of, how it moves, and how that affects the health of our planet.

For example, we now know that dust deposited on snow speeds up snow melt even more than increased air temperature. That is to say, that dust traveling to cold places can cause increased snow melt.

Sharp mountain peaks are covered in splotches of snow with a fine coating of dust visible on top of the snow.

A coating of dust on snow speeds the pace of snowmelt in the spring. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

Dust can affect air temperatures as well. For example, dust with more iron absorbs light and can cause the air to warm, while dust with less iron reflects light and is responsible for local cooling. Iron in dust can also act as a fertilizer for plankton in oceans, supplying them with nutrients needed for growth and reproduction.

A plume of dust eminates from over the Copper River in Alaska, spreading out as this series of overhead satellite images progresses.

A plume of dust is shown emanating from over Alaska's Copper River in October 2016 in these images captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, instrument on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. Dust storms play a key role in fueling phytoplankton blooms by delivering iron to the Gulf of Alaska. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

Floating dust potentially alters the composition of clouds and how quickly or slowly they form, which can ultimately impact weather patterns, including the formation of hurricanes. That’s because clouds need particles to act as seeds around which droplets of moisture in the atmosphere can form. This process of coalescing water particles, called nucleation, is one factor in how clouds form.

An overhead view of a swirl of clouds mixed with a streak of dust like a swirl of milk froth in a cappuccino

A swirl of dust mixes with the clouds in a low-pressure storm over the Gobi desert between Mongolia and China. This image was captured by the MODIS instrument on the Terra satellite in May 2019. Credit: NASA | › Full image and caption

Thanks to EMIT, we’ll take the first steps in understanding how the movements of dust particles contribute to local and global changes in climate by producing “mineral maps”. These mineral maps will reveal differences in the chemical makeup of dust, providing essential information to help us model the way dust can transform Earth’s climate.

› Learn more about what EMIT will do from JPL News

How It Works

NASA has been exploring how dust moves across the globe by combining on-the-ground field studies with cutting-edge technology.

Dr. Olga Kalashnikova, an aerosol scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-investigator for EMIT, has been using satellite data to study atmospheric mineral dust for many years, including tracking the movements of dust and investigating trends in the frequency of dust storms.

As Dr. Kalashnikova describes, “From the ground, we can see what types of dusts are lifted into the atmosphere by dust storms on a local scale, but with EMIT, we can understand how they differ and where they originally came from.”

EMIT is the first instrument designed to observe a key part of the mineral dust cycle from space, allowing scientists to track different dust compositions on a global scale, instead of in just one region at a time. To understand dust’s impact on Earth’s climate, scientists will use EMIT to answer key questions, including:

  • How does dust uplifted in the atmosphere alter global temperatures?
  • What role do dusts play in fertilizing our oceans when they are deposited?
  • How do dust particles in the atmosphere affect cloud nucleation; the process by which clouds are ‘seeded’ and begin to coalesce into larger clouds?
A picture of the EMIT instrument, shaped like a small megaphone, is overlaid on an picture of the International Space Station flying above Earth.

The EMIT instrument will fly aboard the International Space Station, which orbits Earth about once every 90 minutes, completing about 16 orbits per day. Credit: NASA | + Expand image

To achieve its objectives, EMIT will spend 12 months collecting what are called “hyperspectral images” of some of the most arid regions of our planet selected by scientists and engineers as areas of high dust mobility, such as Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the American Southwest.

These images are measurements of light reflected from the Earth below, calibrated to the distinct patterns, or spectra, of light we see when certain minerals are present. The EMIT team has identified 10 minerals that are most common, including gypsum, hematite, and kaolinite.

Bands of satellite images looking at a seciton of Earth are highlighted in different colors to reveal different concentrations of minerals.

This example spectra shows how scientists will be able to identify different concentrations of minerals and elements in data collected by EMIT. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Why are these minerals important? One key reason is the presence or absence of the element iron, found in some minerals but not others.

Dr. Bethany Ehlmann is a planetary scientist and co-investigator for the EMIT project at Caltech and explains that when it comes to heating, “a little bit of iron goes a long way.” Iron in minerals absorbs visible and infrared light, meaning that even if only a small amount is present, it will result in a much warmer dust particle. Large amounts of warm dust in our atmosphere may have an impact on temperatures globally since those dust particles radiate heat as they travel, sometimes as far as across oceans!

Collecting images from space is, of course, no easy task, especially when trying to look only at the ground below. Yet it does allow scientists to get a global picture that's not possible to capture from the ground. Field studies allow us to take individual samples from tiny places of interest, but from space, we can scan the entire planet in remote places where no scientist can visit.

Of course, there are some complications in trying to study the light reflected off the surface of Earth, such as interference from clouds. To prevent this problem, the EMIT team plans to collect data at each location several times to ensure that the images aren’t being obscured by clouds between the instrument and the minerals we’re looking for.

The data collected by EMIT will provide a map of the compositions of dust from dry, desert environments all over the world, but the team involved won’t stop there. Knowing more about what the dust is made of sets the stage for a broader understanding of a few more of the complex processes that make up our global climate cycle. Upon completion of this study, EMIT's mineral maps will support further campaigns to complete our global dust picture. For example, NASA hopes to couple the data from EMIT with targeted field campaigns, in which scientists can collect wind-blown dust from the ground to learn more about where dust particles move over time and answer questions about what types of dust are on the go.

Furthermore, missions such as the Multiangle Imager for Aerosols, or MAIA, will allow us to better understand the effects of these dust particles on air-quality and public health.

Teach it

Studying Earth’s climate is a complex puzzle, consisting of many trackable features. These can range from sea level to particles in our atmosphere, but each makes a contribution to measuring the health of our planet. Bring EMIT and NASA Earth Science into your classroom with these lessons, articles, and activities to better understand how we’re exploring climate change.

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TAGS: Earth, climate, geology, weather, EMIT, Teachers, Classroom, Lessons, Earth Science, Climate Change, Dust, Global Warming, Educators, K-12, Teachable Moments, Climate TM

  • Brandon Rodriguez
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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 education@jpl.nasa.gov.

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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
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Collage of spacecraft featured in the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge

Graphic showing the various spacecraft featured in the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge overlaid with text that reads NASA Pi Day Challenge Answers

Learn about pi and some of the ways the number is used at NASA. Then, dig into the science behind the Pi Day Challenge.


Update: March 15, 2022 – The answers are here! Visit the NASA Pi Day Challenge slideshow to view the illustrated answer keys for each of the problems in the 2022 challenge.

In the News

No matter what Punxsutawney Phil saw on Groundhog Day, a sure sign that spring approaches is Pi Day. Celebrated on March 14, it’s the annual holiday that pays tribute to the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.

Every year, Pi Day gives us a reason to not only celebrate the mathematical wonder that helps NASA explore the universe, but also to enjoy our favorite sweet and savory pies. Students can join in the fun by using pi to explore Earth and space themselves in our ninth annual NASA Pi Day Challenge.

Read on to learn more about the science behind this year's challenge and find out how students can put their math mettle to the test to solve real problems faced by NASA scientists and engineers as we explore Earth, the Moon, Mars, and beyond!
Infographic of all of the Pi in the Sky 9 graphics and problems

Visit the Pi in the Sky 9 lesson page to explore classroom resources and downloads for the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

An spacecraft orbiting the Moon shines a laser into a dark crater.

This artist's concept shows the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft, a six-unit CubeSat designed to search for ice on the Moon's surface using special lasers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image details

Dome-covered seismometer sits on the surface of Mars while clouds pass overhead.

Clouds drift over the dome-covered seismometer, known as SEIS, belonging to NASA's InSight lander, on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. | › Full image and caption

The SWOT spacecraft passes over Florida, sending signals and collecting data.

This animation shows the collection of data over the state of Florida, which is rich with rivers, lakes and wetlands. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

A spacecraft points to a star that has three planets orbiting it.

Illustration of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Credits: NASA | + Expand image

How It Works

Dividing any circle’s circumference by its diameter gives you an answer of pi, which is usually rounded to 3.14. Because pi is an irrational number, its decimal representation goes on forever and never repeats. In 2021, a supercomputer calculated pi to more than 62 trillion digits. But you might be surprised to learn that for space exploration, NASA uses far fewer digits of pi.

Here at NASA, we use pi to understand how much signal we can receive from a distant spacecraft, to calculate the rotation speed of a Mars helicopter blade, and to collect asteroid samples. But pi isn’t just used for exploring the cosmos. Since pi can be used to find the area or circumference of round objects and the volume or surface area of shapes like cylinders, cones, and spheres, it is useful in all sorts of ways. Architects use pi when designing bridges or buildings with arches; electricians use pi when calculating the conductance of wire; and you might even want to use pi to figure out how much frozen goodness you are getting in your ice cream cone.

In the United States, March 14 can be written as 3.14, which is why that date was chosen for celebrating all things pi. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution officially designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi. And that's precisely what the NASA Pi Day Challenge is all about!

The Science Behind the 2022 NASA Pi Day Challenge

This ninth installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge includes four brain-busters that get students using pi to measure frost deep within craters on the Moon, estimate the density of Mars’ core, calculate the water output from a dam to assess its potential environmental impact, and find how far a planet-hunting satellite needs to travel to send data back to Earth.

Read on to learn more about the science and engineering behind the problems or click the link below to jump right into the challenge.

› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge

› Educators, get the lesson here!

Lunar Logic

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight mission is a small satellite that will seek out signs of frost in deep, permanently shadowed craters around the Moon’s south pole. By sending infrared laser pulses to the surface and measuring how much light is reflected back, scientists can determine which areas of the lunar surface contain frost and which are dry. Knowing the locations of water-ice on the Moon could be key for future crewed missions to the Moon, when water will be a precious resource. In Lunar Logic, students use pi to find out how much surface area Lunar Flashlight will measure with a single pulse from its laser.

Core Conundrum

Since 2018, the InSight lander has studied the interior of Mars by measuring vibrations from marsquakes and the “wobble” of the planet as it rotates on its axis. Through careful analysis of the data returned from InSight, scientists were able to measure the size of Mars’ liquid core for the first time and estimate its density. In Core Conundrum, students use pi to do some of the same calculations, determining the volume and density of the Red Planet’s core and comparing it to that of Earth’s core.

Dam Deduction

The Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT mission will conduct NASA's first global survey of Earth's surface water. SWOT’s state-of-the-art radar will measure the elevation of water in major lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs while revealing unprecedented detail on the ocean surface. This data will help scientists track how these bodies of water are changing over time and improve weather and climate models. In Dam Deduction, students learn how data from SWOT can be used to assess the environmental impact of dams. Students then use pi to do their own analysis, finding the powered output of a dam based on the water height of its reservoir and inferring potential impacts of this quick-flowing water.

Telescope Tango

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is designed to survey the sky in search of planets orbiting bright, nearby stars. TESS does this while circling Earth in a unique, never-before-used orbit that brings the spacecraft close to Earth about once every two weeks to transmit its data. This special orbit keeps TESS stable while giving it an unobstructed view of space. In its first two years, TESS identified more than 2,600 possible exoplanets in our galaxy with thousands more discovered during its extended mission. In Telescope Tango, students will use pi to calculate the distance traveled by TESS each time it sends data back to Earth.

Teach It

Celebrate Pi Day by getting students thinking like NASA scientists and engineers to solve real-world problems in NASA Pi Day Challenge. Completing the problem set and reading about other ways NASA uses pi is a great way for students to see the importance of the M in STEM.

Pi Day Resources

Plus, join the conversation using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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TAGS: Pi Day, Pi, Math, NASA Pi Day Challenge, Moon, Lunar Flashlight, Mars, InSight, Earth, Climate, SWOT, Exoplanets, Universe, TESS, Teachers, Educators, Parents, Students, Lessons, Activities, Resources, K-12

  • Lyle Tavernier
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