Get a look into the science and engineering behind the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built while exploring ways to engage learners in the mission.
NASA is launching the largest, most powerful space telescope ever. The James Webb Space Telescope will look back at some of the earliest stages of the universe, gather views of early star and galaxy formation, and provide insights into the formation of planetary systems, including our own solar system.
Read on to learn more about what the space-based observatory will do, how it works, and how to engage learners in the science and engineering behind the mission.
What It Will Do
The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, was developed through a partnership between NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies. It will build upon and extend the discoveries made by the Hubble Space Telescope to help unravel mysteries of the universe. First, let's delve into what scientists hope to learn with the Webb telescope.
How Galaxies Evolve
What the first galaxies looked like and when they formed is not known, and the Webb telescope is designed to help scientists learn more about that early period of the universe. To better understand what the Webb telescope will study, it’s helpful to know what happened in the early universe, before the first stars formed.
The universe, time, and space all began about 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. For the first few hundred-thousand years, the universe was a hot, dense flood of protons, electrons, and neutrons, the tiny particles that make up atoms. As the universe cooled, protons and neutrons combined into ionized hydrogen and helium, which had a positive charge, and eventually attracted all those negatively charged electrons. This process, known as recombination, occurred about 240,000 to 300,000 years after the Big Bang.
Light that previously couldn’t travel without being scattered by the dense ionized plasma of early particles could now travel freely. The very first form of light we can look back and see comes from this time and is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. It is essentially a map of temperature fluctuations across the universe left behind from the Big Bang. The fluxuations give clues about the origin of galaxies and the large-scale structure of galaxies. There were still no stars in the universe at this time, so the next several hundred million years are known as the cosmic dark ages.
Current theory predicts that the earliest stars were big – 30 to 300 times the size of our Sun – and burned quickly, ending in supernova explosions after just a few million years. (For comparison, our Sun has a lifespan of about 10 billion years and will not go supernova.) Observing these luminous supernovae is one of the few ways scientists could study the earliest stars. That is vital to understanding the formation of objects such as the first galaxies.
By using the Webb telescope to compare the earliest galaxies with those of today, scientists hope to understand how they form, what gives them their shape, how chemical elements are distributed across galaxies, how central black holes influence their galaxies, and what happens when galaxies collide.
How Stars and Planetary Systems Form
Stars and their planetary systems form within massive clouds of dust and gas. It's impossible to see into these clouds with visible light, so the Webb telescope is equipped with science instruments that use infrared light to peer into the hearts of stellar nurseries. When viewing these nurseries in the mid-infrared – as the Webb telescope is designed to do – the dust outside the dense star forming regions glows and can be studied directly. This will allow astronomers to observe the details of how stars are born and investigate why most stars form in groups as well as how planetary systems begin and evolve.
How Exoplanets and Our Solar System Evolve
The first planet outside our solar system, or exoplanet, was discovered in 1992. Since then, scientists have found thousands more exoplanets and estimate that there are hundreds of billions in the Milky Way galaxy alone. There are many waiting to be discovered and there is more to learn about the exoplanets themselves, such as what makes up their atmospheres and what their weather and seasons may be like. The Webb telescope will help scientists do just that.
In our own solar system, the Webb telescope will study planets and other objects to help us learn more about our solar neighborhood. It will be able to complement studies of Mars being carried out by orbiters, landers, and rovers by searching for molecules that may be signs of past or present life. It is powerful enough to identify and characterize icy comets in the far reaches of our solar system. And it can be used to study places like Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune while there are no active missions at those planets.
How It Works
The Webb telescope has unique capabilities enabled by the way it views the universe, its size, and the new technologies aboard. Here's how it works.
Peering Into the Infrared
To see ancient, distant galaxies, the Webb telescope was built with instruments sensitive to light in the near- and mid-infrared wavelengths.
Light leaving these galaxies can take billions of years to reach Earth, so when we see these objects, we’re actually seeing what they looked like in the past. The farther something is from Earth, the farther back in time it is when we observe it. So when we look at light that left objects 13.5 billion years ago, we're seeing what happened in the early universe.
As light from distant objects travels to Earth, the universe continues to expand, something it’s been doing since the Big Bang. The waves that make up the light get stretched as the universe expands. You can see this effect in action by making an ink mark on a rubber band and observing how the mark stretches out when you pull on the rubber band.
What this means for light coming from distant galaxies is that the visible lightwaves you would be able to see with your eyes get stretched out so far that the longer wavelengths shift from visible light into infrared. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as redshift – and the farther away an object is, the more redshift it undergoes.
Webb telescope’s infrared sensing equipment will give scientists the chance to study some of the earliest stars that exploded in supernova events, creating the elements necessary to build planets and form life.
The first stars were massive, their life cycles ending in supernova explosions. The light from these explosions has traveled so far that it is incredibly dim. This is due to the inverse square law. You experience this effect when a room appears to get darker as you move away from a light source.
To see such dim light, the Webb telescope needs to be extremely sensitive. A telescope’s sensitivity, or its ability to detect faint signals, is related to the size of the mirror it uses to gather light. On the Webb telescope, 18 hexagonal mirrors combine to form a massive primary mirror that is 21 feet (6.5 meters) across.
Compared with the Hubble Space Telescope’s eight-foot (2.4 meter) diameter mirror, this gives the Webb telescope more than six times the surface area to collect those distant particles of light known as photons. Hubble’s famous Ultra Deep Field observation captured images of incredibly faint, distant galaxies by pointing at a seemingly empty spot in space for 16 days, but the Webb telescope will be able to make a similar observation in just seven hours.
The Webb Telescope gathers its scientific data as infrared light. To detect the faint signals of objects billions of light years away, the instruments inside the telescope have to be kept very cold, otherwise those infrared signals could get lost in the heat of the telescope. Engineers accounted for this with a couple of systems designed to get the instruments cold and keep them cold.
The Webb telescope's orbit around the Sun – sitting about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth at Lagrange point 2 – keeps the spacecraft pretty far from our planet's heat, but even that’s not enough. To further reduce the temperature on the instruments, the spacecraft will unfurl a tennis-court-size sunshield that will block light and heat from the Sun, Earth, and Moon using five layers of specially coated material. Each layer blocks incoming heat, and the heat that does make it through is redirected out of the sides of the sunshield. Additionally, the vacuum between each layer provides insulation.
The sunshield is so effective that the temperatures on the Sun-facing side of the telescope could be hot enough to boil water, while on the side closest to the instruments, the temperature could be as low as -394 F (-237 C, 36 K).
That’s cold enough for the near-infrared instruments to operate, but the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, needs to be even colder. To bring down the temperature of MIRI, the Webb telescope is equipped with a special cryocooler that pumps chilled helium to the instrument to reduce its operating temperature to about -448 F (-267 C, 6 K).
The Webb telescope will search for exoplanets using two different methods.
Using the transit method, the Webb telescope will look for the regular pattern of dimming that occurs when an exoplanet transits its star, or passes between the star and the telescope. The amount of dimming can tell scientists a lot about the passing exoplanet, such as the size of the planet and its distance from the star.
The second method the Webb telescope will use to search for exoplanets is direct imaging – capturing actual images of planets beyond our solar system. To enable direct imaging of exoplanets, the Webb telescope is equipped with a coronagraph. Just like you might use your hand to block a bright light, a coronagraph blocks starlight from reaching a telescope’s instruments, allowing a dim exoplanet orbiting a star to be seen.
The Webb telescope can uncover even more using spectroscopy. Light from a star produces a spectrum, which displays the intensity of light at different wavelengths. When a planet transits its star, some of the light from the star will pass through the planet's atmosphere before reaching the Webb telescope. Since all elements and molecules, such as methane and water, absorb energy at specific wavelengths, spectra from light that has passed through a planet’s atmosphere may contain dark lines known as absorption lines that tell scientists if there are certain elements present.
Using direct imaging and spectroscopy, scientists can learn even more about an exoplanet, including its color, seasons, rotation, weather, and vegetation if it exists.
All this could lead scientists to the ultimate exoplanet discovery: an Earth-size planet with an atmosphere like ours in its star’s habitable zone – a place where liquid water could exist.
Setting Up in Space
The Webb telescope will launch from French Guiana on top of an Ariane 5 rocket, a massive rocket capable of lifting the telescope, which weighs nearly 14,000 pounds (6,200 kilograms), to its destination.
The telescope's large mirror and giant sunshield are too big to fit inside the 18-foot (5.4-meter) wide rocket fairing, which protects the spacecraft during launch. To overcome this challenge, engineers designed the telescope's mirror and sunshield to fold for launch.
Two sides of the mirror assembly fold back for launch, allowing them to fit inside the fairing. The sunshield, which is 69.5 feet (21 meters) long and 46.5 feet (14 meters) wide, is carefully folded 12 times like origami so that it's narrow enough for launch. These are just two examples of several folding mechanisms needed to fit the massive telescope in its rocket for launch.
It will take about a month for the Webb telescope to reach its destination and unfurl its mirrors and sunshield. Scientists need another five months to cool down the instruments to their operating temperatures and align the mirrors correctly.
Approximately six months after launch, checkouts should be complete, and the telescope will begin its first science campaign and science operations.
Learn more and follow along with the mission from launch and unfolding to science observations and discovery announcements on the James Webb Space Telescope website.
Check out these resources to bring the real-life STEM behind the mission into your teaching with lesson guides for educators, projects and slideshows for students, and more.
Exploring the Universe - Lessons for Educators
Teach students all about the universe, stars, galaxies, and exoplanets with this collection of standards-aligned STEM lessons.
All About the Universe - Activities for Students
Students can learn all about the universe, stars, galaxies, and exoplanets with these hands-on projects, slideshows, and videos.
Articles for Students
- What is the James Webb Space Telescope?
- What is the Big Bang?
- What is a galaxy?
- What is a satellite galaxy?
- What is a transit?
- What is a black hole?
- What is a light year?
- What is a nebula?
- What is an exoplanet?
- How many solar systems are in our galaxy?
- How old are galaxies?
- What is a supernova?
- Explore the electromagnetic spectrum
Videos for Students
- Space Place in a Snap: The Solar System’s Formation
- Space Place in a Snap: Searching for Other Planets Like Ours
Resources for Educators and Parents
- Mission Website: James Webb Space Telescope
- Photos: James Webb Space Telescope
- Videos: James Webb Space Telescope
- Facts & Figures: Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI)
NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
TAGS: JWST, James Webb Space Telescope, electromagnetic spectrum, exoplanets, universe, solar system, big bang, cosmology, astronomy, star formation, galaxy, galaxies, telescope, life, technology, MIRI, Mars, Engineering, Teaching, Education, Classroom, Science
Most years, summertime at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory arrives with an influx of more than 800 interns, raring to play a hands-on role in exploring Earth and space with robotic spacecraft.
Perhaps as exciting as adding NASA to their resumes and working alongside the scientists and engineers they have long admired is the chance to explore the laboratory's smorgasbord of science labs, spacecraft assembly facilities, space simulators, the historic mission control center and a place called the Mars Yard, where engineers test drive Mars rovers.
But this year, as the summer internship season approached with most of JPL's more than 6,000 employees still on mandatory telework, the laboratory – and the students who were offered internships at the Southern California center – had a decision to make.
"We asked the students and the mentors [the employees bringing them in] whether their projects could still be achieved remotely and provide the educational component we consider to be so crucial to these experiences," said Adrian Ponce, deputy section manager of JPL's Education Office, which runs the laboratory's STEM internship programs.
The answer was a resounding yes, which meant the laboratory had just a matter of weeks to create virtual alternatives for every aspect of the internship experience, from accessing specialized software for studying Earth and planetary science to testing and fine-tuning the movements of spacecraft in development and preparing others for launch to attending enrichment activities like science talks and team building events.
“We were able to transition almost all of the interns to aspects of their projects that are telework-compatible. Others agreed to a future start date,” said Ponce, adding that just 2% of the students offered internships declined to proceed or had their projects canceled.
Now, JPL's 600-plus summer interns – some who were part-way through internships when the stay-at-home orders went into effect, others who are returning and many who are first-timers – are getting an extended lesson in the against-the-odds attitude on which the laboratory prides itself.
We wanted to hear about their experiences as JPL's first class of remote interns. What are their routines and home offices like in cities across the country? How have their teams adapted to building spacecraft and doing science remotely? Read a collection of their responses below to learn how JPL interns are finding ways to persevere, whether it's using their engineering skills to fashion homemade desks, getting accustomed to testing spacecraft from 2,000 miles away or working alongside siblings, kids, and pets.
"I am working with an astronomer on the NEOWISE project, which is an automated system that detects near-Earth objects, such as asteroids. The goal of my project is to identify any objects missed by the automated system and use modeling to learn more about their characteristics. My average day consists of writing scripts in Python to manipulate the NEOWISE data and visually vet that the objects in the images are asteroids and not noise or stars.
My office setup consists of a table with scattered books, papers, and pencils, a laptop, television, a child in the background asking a million questions while I work, and a bird on my shoulder that watches me at times."
– Jennifer Bragg will be studying optics at the University of Arizona as an incoming graduate student starting this August. She is completing her summer internship from Pahoa, Hawaii.
"I'm helping support the Perseverance Mars rover launch this summer. So far, I have been working remotely, but I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to Pasadena, California, in late July to support the launch from JPL! On launch day, I will be in the testbed, where myself and a few other members of my group will be 'shadowing' the spacecraft. This means that when operators send their commands to the actual spacecraft, when it’s on the launch pad and during its first day or so in space, we'll send the same instructions to the test-bed version. This way, if anything goes wrong, we'll have a high-fidelity simulation ready for debugging.
I have a desk in my bedroom, so my office setup is decent enough. I bought a little whiteboard to write myself notes. As for my average working day, it really depends on what I'm doing. Some days, I'm writing procedures or code, so it's a text editor, a hundred internet tabs, and a messenger to ask my team members questions. Other days, I'm supporting a shift in the test bed, so I'm on a web call with a few other people talking about the test we're doing. Luckily, a large portion of my team's work can be done on our personal computers. The biggest change has been adding the ability to operate the test bed remotely. I'm often amazed that from New York, I can control hardware in California.
I was ecstatic that I was still able to help with the Perseverance Mars rover mission! I spent the second half of 2019 working on launch and cruise testing for the mission, so I'm happy to be able to see it through."
– Radina Yanakieva is an undergraduate student studying aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech and interning from Staten Island, New York.
"Our team is using radar data [from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft] to find out what lies beneath the large icy deposits on Mars' south pole. My average day consists of analyzing this radar data on my computer to find and map the topography of an older surface that lies below the ice on Mars’ south pole, while my plants look on approvingly.
I was delighted to be offered the chance to work at JPL again. (This is my fourth JPL internship.) Even though it's better to be 'on lab,' it is an honor to get to learn from the coolest and smartest people in the world."
– Aditya Khuller is a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in planetary science at Arizona State University and interning from Tempe, Arizona.
"I am working on the Perseverance Mars rover mission [launching this summer]. As a member of the mobility team, I am testing the rover's auto-navigation behaviors. If given a specific location, flight software should be able to return data about where that location is relative to the rover. My project is to create test cases and develop procedures to verify the data returned by the flight software when this feature is used.
My average day starts with me eating breakfast with my mom who is also working from home. Then, I write a brief plan for my day. Next, I meet with my mentor to discuss any problems and/or updates. I spend the rest of my day at my portable workstation working on code to test the rover's behaviors and analyzing the data from the tests. I have a mini desk that I either set up in my bedroom in front of my Georgia Tech Buzz painting or in the dining room.
If I could visit in person, the first thing I would want to see is the Mars rover engineering model "Scarecrow." I would love to visit the Mars Yard [a simulated Mars environment at JPL] and watch Scarecrow run through different tests. It would be so cool to see a physical representation of the things that I've been working on."
– Breanna Ivey is an undergraduate student studying electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and interning from Macon, Georgia.
"I am working on the Psyche mission as a member of the Assembly Test and Launch Operations team, also known as ATLO. (We engineers love our acronyms!) Our goal is to assemble and test the Psyche spacecraft to make sure everything works correctly so that the spacecraft will be able to orbit and study its target, a metal asteroid also called Psyche. Scientists theorize that the asteroid is actually the metal core of what was once another planet. By studying it, we hope to learn more about the formation of Earth.
I always start out my virtual work day by giving my dog a hug, grabbing a cup of coffee and heading up to my family's guest bedroom, which has turned into my office for the summer. On the window sill in my office are a number of space-themed Lego sets including the 'Women of NASA' set, which helps me get into the space-exploration mood! Once I have fueled up on coffee, my brain is ready for launch, and I log in to the JPL virtual network to start writing plans for testing Psyche's propulsion systems. While the ATLO team is working remotely, we are focused on writing test plans and procedures so that they can be ready as soon as the Psyche spacecraft is in the lab for testing. We have a continuous stream of video calls set up throughout the week to meet virtually with the teams helping to build the spacecraft."
– Kaelan Oldani is a master's student studying aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan and interning from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She recently accepted a full-time position at JPL and is starting in early 2021.
"NASA's Deep Space Network is a system of antennas positioned around the world – in Australia, Spain, and Goldstone, California – that's used to communicate with spacecraft. My internship is working on a risk assessment of the hydraulic system for the 70-meter antenna at the Goldstone facility. The hydraulic system is what allows the antenna and dish surrounding it to move so it can accurately track spacecraft in flight. The ultimate goal of the work is to make sure the antenna's hydraulic systems meet NASA standards.
My average day starts by getting ready for work (morning routine), accessing my work computer through a virtual interface and talking with my mentor on [our collaboration tool]. Then, I dive into work, researching hydraulic schematics, JPL technical drawings of the antenna, and NASA standards, and adding to a huge spreadsheet that I use to track every component of the antenna's hydraulic system. Currently, I'm tracking every flexible hydraulic fluid hose on the system and figuring out what dangers a failure of the hose could have on personnel and the mission."
– Ricardo Isai Melgar is an undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering at East Los Angeles College and interning from Los Angeles.
"My project this summer is to develop a network of carbon-dioxide sensors to be used aboard the International Space Station for monitoring the levels of carbon dioxide that crewmembers experience.
My 'office setup' is actually just a board across the end of my bed balanced on the other side by a small dresser that I pull into the middle of the room every day so that I can sit and have a hard surface to work on.
At first I wasn't sure if I was interested in doing a virtual engineering internship. How would that even work? But after talking to my family, I decided to accept. Online or in person, getting to work at JPL is still a really cool opportunity."
– Susanna Eschbach is an undergraduate student studying electrical and computer engineering at Northern Illinois University and interning from DeKalb, Illinois.
"I'm planning test procedures for the Europa Clipper mission [which is designed to make flybys of Jupiter's moon Europa]. The end goal is to create a list of tests we can perform that will prove that the spacecraft meets its requirements and works as a whole system.
I was very excited when I got the offer to do a virtual internship at JPL. My internship was originally supposed to be with the Perseverance Mars rover mission, but it required too much in-person work, so I was moved to the Europa Clipper project. While I had been looking forward to working on a project that was going to be launching so soon, Jupiter's moon Europa has always captured my imagination because of the ocean under its surface. It was an added bonus to know I had an internship secured for the summer."
– Izzie Torres is an undergraduate student studying aerospace engineering and management at MIT and interning from Seattle.
"I am investigating potential spacecraft trajectories to reach the water worlds orbiting the outer planets, specifically Jupiter's moon Europa. If you take both Jupiter and Europa into account, their gravitational force fields combine to allow for some incredibly fuel-efficient maneuvers between the two. The ultimate goal is to make it easier for mission designers to use these low-energy trajectories to develop mission plans that use very little fuel.
I'm not a gamer, but I just got a new gaming laptop because it has a nice graphics processing unit, or GPU. During my internship at JPL last summer, we used several GPUs and a supercomputer to make our trajectory computations 10,000 times faster! We plan to use the GPU to speed up my work this summer as well. I have my laptop connected to a second monitor up in the loft of the cabin where my wife and I are staying. We just had a baby two months ago, so I have to make the most of the quiet times when he's napping!"
– Jared Blanchard is a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University.
"I'm doing a theory-based project on the topic of nanotechnology under the mentorship of Mohammad Ashtijou and Eric Perez.
I vividly remember being infatuated with NASA as a youth, so much so that my parents ordered me a pamphlet from Space Center Houston with posters and stickers explaining all of the cool things happening across NASA. I will never forget when I was able to visit Space Center Houston on spring break in 2009. It was by far the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed as a youth. When I was offered the internship at JPL, I was excited, challenged, and motivated. There is a great deal of respect that comes with being an NASA intern, and I look forward to furthering my experiences.
But the challenges are prevalent, too. Unfortunately, the internship is completely virtual and there are limitations to my experience. It is hard working at home with the multiple personalities in my family. I love them, but have you attempted to conduct research with a surround system of romantic comedies playing in the living room, war video games blasting grenades, and the sweet voice of your grandmother asking for help getting pans from the top shelf?"
– Yohn I. Ellis Jr. is a graduate student studying electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University and interning from Houston.
"This summer, I am supporting the proposal for a small satellite mission concept called Cupid’s Arrow. Cupid’s Arrow would be a small probe designed to fly through Venus’ atmosphere and collect samples. The ultimate goal of the project is to understand the “origin story” of Venus' atmosphere and how, despite their comparable sizes, Earth and Venus evolved so differently geologically, with the former being the habitable, friendly planet that we call home and the latter being the hottest planet in our solar system with a mainly carbon dioxide atmosphere.
While ordinary JPL meetings include discussions of space probes, rockets, and visiting other planets, my working day rarely involves leaving my desk. Because all of my work can be done on my computer, I have a pretty simple office setup: a desk, my computer, and a wall full of posters of Earth and the Solar System. An average day is usually a combination of data analysis, reading and learning about Venus, and a number of web meetings. The team has several different time zones represented, so a morning meeting in Pacific time accommodates all of Pacific, Eastern and European time zones that exist within the working hours of the team."
– Mina Cezairli is an undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering at Yale University and is interning from New Haven, Connecticut.
“I'm characterizing the genetic signatures of heat-resistant bacteria. The goal is to improve the techniques we use to sterilize spacecraft to prevent them from contaminating other worlds or bringing contaminants back to Earth. Specifically, I'm working to refine the amount of time spacecraft need to spend getting blasted by dry heat as a sanitation method.
"As someone who has a biology-lab heavy internship, I was quite skeptical of how an online internship would work. There was originally supposed to be lab work, but I think the project took an interesting turn into research and computational biology. It has been a really cool intersection to explore, and I have gained a deeper understanding of the math and analysis involved in addition to the biology concepts."
– Izabella Zamora is an undergraduate student studying biology and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and interning from Brimfield, Massachusetts.
"I am working on the engineering operations team for the Perseverance Mars rover. After the rover lands on Mars, it will send daily status updates. Every day, an engineer at JPL will need to make sure that the status update looks healthy so that the rover can continue its mission. I am writing code to make that process a lot faster for the engineers.
When I was offered the internship back in November, I thought I would be working on hardware for the rover. Once the COVID-19 crisis began ramping up and I saw many of my friends' internships get cancelled or shortened, I was worried that the same would happen to me. One day, I got a call letting me know that my previous internship wouldn't be possible but that there was an opportunity to work on a different team. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to retain my internship at JPL and get the chance to work with my mentor, Farah Alibay, who was once a JPL intern herself."
– Leilani Trautman is an undergraduate student studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and interning from San Diego, California.
"I am working on electronics for the coronagraph instrument that will fly aboard the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. The Roman Space Telescope will study dark energy, dark matter, and exoplanets [planets outside our solar system]. The science instrument I'm working on will be used to image exoplanets. It's also serving as a technology demonstration to advance future coronagraphs [which are instruments designed to observe objects close to bright stars].
I was both nervous and excited to have a virtual internship. I’m a returning intern, continuing my work on the coronagraph instrument. I absolutely love my work and my project at JPL, so I was really looking forward to another internship. Since I’m working with the same group, I was relieved that I already knew my team, but nervous about how I would connect with my team, ask questions, and meet other 'JPLers.' But I think my team is just as effective working virtually as we were when working 'on lab.' My mentor and I have even figured out how to test hardware virtually by video calling the engineer in the lab and connecting remotely into the lab computer."
– Kathryn Chamberlin is an undergraduate student studying electrical engineering at Arizona State University and interning from Phoenix.
"I am working on the flight system for the Perseverance Mars rover. The first half of my internship was spent learning the rules of the road for the entire flight system. My first task was updating command-line Python scripts, which help unpack the data that is received from the rover. After that, I moved on to testing a part of the flight software that manages which mechanisms and instruments the spacecraft can use at a certain time. I have been so grateful to contribute to the Perseverance Mars rover project, especially during the summer that it launches!
I have always been one to be happy with all the opportunities I am granted, but I do have to say it was hard to come to the realization that I would not be able to step foot on the JPL campus. However, I was truly grateful to receive this opportunity, and I have been so delighted to see the JPL spirit translate to the online video chats and communication channels. It's definitely the amazing people who make JPL into the place that everybody admires. Most important, I would like to thank my mentor, Jessica Samuels, for taking the time to meet with me every day and show me the true compassion and inspiration of the engineers at JPL."
– Daniel Stover is an undergraduate student studying electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech and interning from Leesburg, Virginia.
"I'm working on a project called the Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, or MAIA. It's an instrument that will go into lower Earth orbit and collect images of particulate matter to learn about air pollution and its effects on health. I'm programming some of the software used to control the instrument's electronics. I'm also testing the simulated interface used to communicate with the instrument.
I was ecstatic to still have my internship! I'm very blessed to be able to do all my work remotely. It has sometimes proven to be a challenge when I find myself more than four layers deep in virtual environments. And it can be confusing to program hardware on the West Coast with software that I wrote all the way over here on the East Coast. However, I've learned so much and am surprised by and grateful for the meaningful relationships I've already built."
– Sophia Yoo is an incoming graduate student studying electrical and computer engineering at Princeton University and is interning from Souderton, Pennsylvania.
"My summer research project is focused on using machine-learning algorithms to make predictions about the density of electrons in Earth’s ionosphere [a region of the planet's upper atmosphere]. Our work seeks to allow scientists to forecast this electron density, as it has important impacts on things such as GPS positioning and aircraft navigation.
Despite the strangeness of working remotely, I have learned a ton about the research process and what it is like to be part of a real research team. Working alongside my mentors to adapt to the unique challenges of working remotely has also been educational. In research, and in life, there will always be new and unforeseen problems and challenges. This extreme circumstance is valuable in that it teaches us interns the importance of creative problem solving, adaptability, and making the most out of the situation we are given."
– Natalie Maus is an undergraduate student studying astrophysics and computer science at Colby College and interning from Evergreen, Colorado.
"I have two projects at JPL. My first project focuses on the Europa Clipper mission [designed to make flybys of Jupiter's moon Europa]. I study how the complex topography on the icy moon influences the temperature of the surface. This work is crucial to detect 'hot spots,' which are areas the mission (and future missions) aim to study because they might correspond to regions that could support life! My other work consists of studying frost on Mars and whether it indicates the presence of water-ice below the surface.
JPL and NASA interns are connected through social networks, and it's impressive to see the diversity. Some talks are given by 'JPLers' who make themselves available to answer questions. When I came to JPL, I expected to meet superheroes. This wish has been entirely fulfilled. Working remotely doesn't mean working alone. On the contrary, I think it increases our connections and solidarity."
– Lucas Lange is an undergraduate student studying aerospace engineering and planetary science at ISAE-SUPAERO [aerospace institute in France] and interning from Pasadena, California.
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: jpl.nasa.gov/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
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Update: March 15, 2019 – The answers to the 2019 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key
In the News
The excitement of Pi Day – and our annual excuse to chow down on pie – is upon us! The holiday celebrating the mathematical constant pi arrives on March 14, and with it comes the sixth installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Education Office. This challenge gives students in grades 6-12 a chance to solve four real-world problems faced by NASA scientists and engineers. (Even if you’re done with school, they’re worth a try for the bragging rights.)
Why March 14?
Pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is what is known as an irrational number. As an irrational number, its decimal representation never ends, and it never repeats. Though it has been calculated to trillions of digits, we use far fewer at NASA. In fact, 3.14 is a good approximation, which is why March 14 (or 3/14 in U.S. month/day format) came to be the date that we celebrate this mathematical marvel.
The first-known Pi Day celebration occurred in 1988. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.
The 2019 Challenge
This year’s NASA Pi Day Challenge features four planetary puzzlers that show students how pi is used at the agency. The challenges involve weathering a Mars dust storm, sizing up a shrinking storm on Jupiter, estimating the water content of a rain cloud on Earth and blasting ice samples with lasers!
The Science Behind the Challenge
In late spring of 2018, a dust storm began stretching across Mars and eventually nearly blanketed the entire planet in thick dust. Darkness fell across Mars’ surface, blocking the vital sunlight that the solar-powered Opportunity rover needed to survive. It was the beginning of the end for the rover’s 15-year mission on Mars. At its height, the storm covered all but the peak of Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system. In the Deadly Dust challenge, students must use pi to calculate what percentage of the Red Planet was covered by the dust storm.
The Terra satellite, orbiting Earth since 1999, uses the nine cameras on its Multi-Angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer, or MISR, instrument to provide scientists with unique views of Earth, returning data about atmospheric particles, land-surface features and clouds. Estimating the amount of water in a cloud, and the potential for rainfall, is serious business. Knowing how much rain may fall in a given area can help residents and first responders prepare for emergencies like flooding and mudslides. In Cloud Computing, students can use their knowledge of pi and geometric shapes to estimate the amount of water contained in a cloud.
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a giant storm that has been fascinating observers since the early 19th century, is shrinking. The storm has been continuously observed since the 1830s, but measurements from spacecraft like Voyager, the Hubble Space Telescope and Juno indicate the storm is getting smaller. How much smaller? In Storm Spotter, students can determine the answer to that very question faced by scientists.
Scientists studying ices found in space, such as comets, want to understand what they’re made of and how they interact and react with the environment around them. To see what molecules may form in space when a comet comes into contact with solar wind or sunlight, scientists place an ice sample in a vacuum and then expose it to electrons or ultraviolet photons. Scientists have analyzed samples in the lab and detected molecules that were later observed in space on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. To analyze the lab samples, an infrared laser is aimed at the ice, causing it to explode. But the ice will explode only if the laser is powerful enough. Scientist use pi to figure out how strong the laser needs to be to explode the sample – and students can do the same when they solve the Icy Intel challenge.
Pi Day Challenge Lessons
Here's everything you need to bring the NASA Pi Day Challenge into the classroom.
Slideshow: NASA Pi Day Challenge
The entire NASA Pi Day Challenge collection can be found in one, handy slideshow for students.
Pi Day: What’s Going ’Round
Tell us what you’re up to this Pi Day and share your stories and photos with NASA.
Blogs and Features
How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need?
While you may have memorized more than 70,000 digits of pi, world record holders, a JPL engineer explains why you really only need a tiny fraction of that for most calculations.
Slideshow: 18 Ways NASA Uses Pi
Whether it's sending spacecraft to other planets, driving rovers on Mars, finding out what planets are made of or how deep alien oceans are, pi takes us far at NASA. Find out how pi helps us explore space.
The Sky and Dichotomous Key
Students learn about cloud types to be able to predict inclement weather. They will then identify areas in the school affected by severe weather and develop a solution to ease the impacts of rain, wind, heat or sun.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Precipitation Towers: Modeling Weather Data
This lesson uses stacking cubes as a way to graph precipitation data, comparing the precipitation averages and seasonal patterns for several locations.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Create a Comet with Dry Ice
Build an icy model of a comet out of dry ice -- complete with shooting jets! -- as a demonstration for students.
Time < 30 mins
Comet on a Stick
Students build their own comet models using craft materials.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Modeling the Water Budget
Students use a spreadsheet model to understand droughts and the movement of water in the water cycle.
Time 30 min - 1 hr
Make a Cloud Mobile - NASA SpacePlace
This mobile of feathery clouds will twist and turn in a gentle breeze. It even includes rain clouds with sparkling showers!
Infographic: Planet Pi
This poster shows some of the ways NASA scientists and engineers use the mathematical constant pi (3.14) and includes common pi formulas.
Game: Comet Quest - NASA SpacePlace
Control a spacecraft and use it to explore an icy comet!
Facts and Figures
- Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko
- What is a Laser? – NASA SpacePlace
- What Is the Water Cycle? – Climate Kids
Missions and Instruments
- Hubble Space Telescope
- Opportunity Rover
- MISR instrument
- Ice Spectroscopy Laboratory
In the News
The Voyager 2 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has reached interstellar space, a region beyond the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun – where the only other human-made object is its twin, Voyager 1.
The achievement means new opportunities for scientists to study this mysterious region. And for educators, it’s a chance to get students exploring the scale and anatomy of our solar system, plus the engineering and math required for such an epic journey.
How They Did It
Launched just 16 days apart, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were designed to take advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets that only occurs once every 176 years. Their trajectory took them by the outer planets, where they captured never-before-seen images. They were also able to steal a little momentum from Jupiter and Saturn that helped send them on a path toward interstellar space. This “gravity assist” gave the spacecraft a velocity boost without expending any fuel. Though both spacecraft were destined for interstellar space, they followed slightly different trajectories.
Voyager 1 followed a path that enabled it to fly by Jupiter in 1979, discovering the gas giant’s rings. It continued on for a 1980 close encounter with Saturn’s moon Titan before a gravity assist from Saturn hurled it above the plane of the solar system and out toward interstellar space. After Voyager 2 visited Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1981, it continued on to encounter Uranus in 1986, where it obtained another assist. Its last planetary visit before heading out of the solar system was Neptune in 1989, where the gas giant’s gravity sent the probe in a southward direction toward interstellar space. Since the end of its prime mission at Neptune, Voyager 2 has been using its onboard instruments to continue sensing the environment around it, communicating data back to scientists on Earth. It was this data that scientists used to determine Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space.
How We Know
Interstellar space, the region between the stars, is beyond the influence of the solar wind, charged particles emanating from the Sun, and before the influence of the stellar wind of another star. One hint that Voyager 2 was nearing interstellar space came in late August when the Cosmic Ray Subsystem, an instrument that measures cosmic rays coming from the Sun and galactic cosmic rays coming from outside our solar system, measured an increase in galactic cosmic rays hitting the spacecraft. Then on November 5, the instrument detected a sharp decrease in high energy particles from the Sun. That downward trend continued over the following weeks.
The data from the cosmic ray instrument provided strong evidence that Voyager 2 had entered interstellar space because its twin had returned similar data when it crossed the boundary of the heliosheath. But the most compelling evidence came from its Plasma Science Experiment – an instrument that had stopped working on Voyager 1 in 1980. Until recently, the space surrounding Voyager 2 was filled mostly with plasma flowing out from our Sun. This outflow, called the solar wind, creates a bubble, the heliosphere, that envelopes all the planets in our solar system. Voyager 2’s Plasma Science Experiment can detect the speed, density, temperature, pressure and flux of that solar wind. On the same day that the spacecraft’s cosmic ray instrument detected a steep decline in the number of solar energetic particles, the plasma science instrument observed a decline in the speed of the solar wind. Since that date, the plasma instrument has observed no solar wind flow in the environment around Voyager 2, which makes mission scientists confident the probe has entered interstellar space.
Though the spacecraft have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won't be leaving anytime soon. The boundary of the solar system is considered to be beyond the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, a collection of small objects that are still under the influence of the Sun's gravity. The width of the Oort Cloud is not known precisely, but it is estimated to begin at about 1,000 astronomical units from the Sun and extend to about 100,000 AU. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance from the Sun to Earth.) It will take about 300 years for Voyager 2 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly 30,000 years to fly beyond it. By that time, both Voyager spacecraft will be completely out of the hydrazine fuel used to point them toward Earth (to send and receive data) and their power sources will have decayed beyond their usable lifetime.
Why It’s Important
Since the Voyager spacecraft launched more than 40 years ago, no other NASA missions have encountered as many planets (some of which had never been visited) and continued making science observations from such great distances. Other spacecraft, such as New Horizons and Pioneer 10 and 11, will eventually make it to interstellar space, but we will have no data from them to confirm their arrival or explore the region because their instruments already have or will have shut off by then.
Interstellar space is a region that’s still mysterious because until 2012, when Voyager 1 arrived there, no spacecraft had visited it. Now, data from Voyager 2 will help add to scientists’ growing understanding of the region. Scientists are hoping to continue using Voyager 2’s plasma science instrument to study the properties of the ionized gases, or plasma, that exist in the interstellar medium by making direct measurements of the plasma density and temperature. This new data may shed more light on the evolution of our solar neighborhood and will most certainly provide a window into the exciting unexplored region of interstellar space, improving our understanding of space and our place in it.
As power wanes on Voyager 2, scientists will have to make tough choices about which instruments to keep turned on. Further complicating the situation is the freezing cold temperature at which the spacecraft is currently operating – perilously close to the freezing point of its hydrazine fuel. But for as long as both Voyager spacecraft are able to maintain power and communication, we will continue to learn about the uncharted territory of interstellar space.
Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing math and science with a real-world (and space!) connection.
Solar System Bead Activity
Students create a scale model of the solar system using beads and string.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Catching a Whisper from Space
Students kinesthetically model the mathematics of how NASA communicates with spacecraft.
Time 1-2 hrs
Solar System Scroll
Students predict the scale of our solar system and the distance between planets, then check their answers using fractions.
Time < 30 mins
*NEW* Modeling the Structure of the Solar System
Students will learn about the structure of the solar system and be able to identify analogous regions in a dynamic, 2-D kitchen-sink model.
Time 1-2 hrs
Hear Here: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
Students use the mathematical constant pi to determine what fraction of a signal from Voyager 1 – the most distant spacecraft – reaches Earth.
Time < 30 mins
- News Release: “NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space” – Dec. 10, 2018
- News Release: “NASA Spacecraft Embarks on Historic Journey Into Interstellar Space” – September 12, 2013
- Voyager Mission
- Voyager Images
- Voyager 2: Interstellar, by the Numbers
- Commemorative Voyager Posters
Until she discovered game development, Michelle Vo’s daydreams were a problem. She couldn’t focus in her computer science classes. Her grades were dipping. She wondered whether she was cut out to be a programmer or for school at all. So she took a break to make something just for fun, a self-help game. And help her, it did. Now focusing on virtual and augmented reality, Vo is back at school, studying not just computer science, but also cognitive science, linguistics and digital humanities. It’s a lot, but to create a virtual world, she says one has to first understand how people navigate the real one. This summer, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the UCLA student applied her talents to VR and AR experiences that help scientists explore a totally different world, Mars. While Vo’s tendency to daydream hasn’t gone away, she now knows how to use the distractions for good; she turns them into VR inspiration.
What are you working on at JPL?
I worked on this project called OnSight, which just won NASA Software of the Year! I also worked on another project for the InSight Mars lander mission. Honestly, it’s been such a dream come true to intern here. I actually used to struggle a lot with school because I would often get caught up in my own daydreams. However, I’m really glad I found a unique career path in VR where I can turn those dreams into something useful.
That's so great that you were able to channel your daydreams in that way. How did you go from struggling in school to doing VR?
When I first tried on a VR headset, I was like, "This is the future. I need to do whatever I can to learn about this." I decided to study computer science, but it was easy to get lost and fall behind in a large classroom environment. Not a lot of people know this, but I was on academic probation for a while. Looking back, I think my shyness held me back from asking for the help that I needed.
When I took a break from school, I decided I wanted to try making a game. I wanted to do something just for fun, and I was determined to fix my bad habits. So with some friends, I created a self-help game at AthenaHacks, a women’s hackathon. For 24 hours, I was just immersed in my work. I had never felt that way about anything in my life, where I was just zoned in, in my own world, building something I loved. And that's when I realized, I think it's game development. I think this is what I want.
So I spent the year teaching myself [game development], and I got a lot more comfortable using the Unity game engine. I went on to attend Make School’s VR Summer Academy in San Francisco. That smaller learning environment opened up the world for me. It boosted my confidence more than anything to have the support I needed. I was like, "Maybe my grades aren’t so great, but I know how to build VR applications – and the world needs VR right now.”
So when I went back to my university, I thought, "I'll try again. I'm going to go back to computer science.” And so far so good. I'm into my fourth year at UCLA studying cognitive science, linguistics, computer science and digital humanities. It sounds like a lot, but they're all related in the sense that they're all connected to VR. To me, VR is mainly a study of the mind and how we perceive reality. It’s not just about game development; you also need to understand human behavior to create good user-friendly VR.
So going back to your JPL internship, how are you using your VR skills to help scientists and engineers?
I’m interning in the Ops Lab, and the project I've been working on primarily is called OnSight. OnSight uses Microsoft’s HoloLens [mixed-reality software] to simulate walking on Mars. Mars scientists use it to collaborate with each other. We had “Meet on Mars” this morning, actually. On certain days, Mars scientists will put on their headsets and hang out virtually on Mars. They see each other. They talk. They look at Mars rocks and take notes. It's based on images from the Curiosity Mars rover. We converted those images to 3-D models to create the virtual terrain, so through VR, we can simulate walking on Mars without being there.
For a few weeks, I worked on another project with the InSight Mars lander mission. We took the terrain model that's generated from images of [the landing site] and made it so the team could see that terrain on top of their testbed [at JPL] with a HoloLens. For them, that's important because they're trying to recreate the terrain to … Wait, I recorded this.
[Michelle quickly scans through the photo library on her phone and pulls up a video she recorded from JPL’s In-Situ Instruments Laboratory. Pranay Mishra, a testbed engineer for the InSight mission, stands in a simulated Mars landscape next to a working model of the lander and explains:]
“When InSight reaches Mars, we're going to get images of the terrain that we land on. The instruments will be deployed to that terrain, so we will want to practice those deployments in the testbed. One of the biggest things that affects our deployment ability is the terrain. If the terrain is tilted or there are rocks in certain spots, that all has a strong effect on our deployment accuracy. To practice it here, we want the terrain in the testbed to match the terrain on Mars. The only things we can view from Mars are the images that we get back [from the lander]. We want to put those into the HoloLens so that we can start terraforming, or “marsforming,” the testbed terrain to match the terrain on Mars. That way, we can maybe get a rough idea of what the deployment would look like on Mars by practicing it on Earth.”
They already gave us photos of Mars, which they turned into a 3D model. I created an AR project, where you look through the HoloLens – looking at the real world – and the 3D model is superimposed on the testbed. So the [testbed team] will shovel through and shape the terrain to match what it’s like on Mars, at InSight’s landing site.
Did you know that this was an area that you could work in at JPL before interning here?
OnSight was a well known project in the VR/AR space, since it was the first project to use the Microsoft Hololens. I remember being excited to see a panel on the project at the VRLA conference. So when I finally got on board with the team, I was ecstatic. I also realized that there’s room for improvement, and that’s OK. That’s why I'm here as an intern; I can bring in a fresh look.One of the things I did on this project was incorporate physical controllers. My critique when I first started was, "This interface is a bit tricky to use," and if it's challenging for me to use as a millenial, how is this going to be usable for people of all ages? I try to think in terms of accessibility for everybody. Through lots of testing, I realized that people need to be touching things, physical things. That's what OnSight lacked, a physical controller. There were a lot of things that I experimented with, and eventually, it came down to a keyboard that allows you to manipulate the simulated Mars rovers. So now with OnSight, you can drive the [simulated] rovers around with a keyboard controller and possibly in the future, type notes within the application. Previously, you had to tap into the air to use an AR keyboard, and that's not intuitive. I believe we still need to touch the physical world.
How has this project compared with other ones that you've done elsewhere?
I felt really in my element. And for the first time ever, the imposter-syndrome voice went away. I felt like I could just be myself and actually have a voice to contribute. You know, I might be small, I might be the shortest one, but I'm mighty. It’s been such a positive and supportive environment. I've had an incredible internship and learned so much.
What has been the most unique experience that you've had at JPL?
Working in the Ops Lab has been such a unique experience. Every day, we’re tinkering with cutting-edge technology in AR and VR. I am so thankful to have my mentors, Victor Luo and Parker Abercrombie, who give me the support and guidance I need to grow and learn. Outside of the Ops Lab, I also had the unique opportunity to meet astronaut Kate Rubins and talk about VR with her. I had lunch with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when he visited JPL. And working with the InSight mission and Marleen Sundgaard, the mission’s testbed lead, was especially cool. I can't believe I was able to use my skills for something the Mars InSight mission needed. Being able to say that is something I'm really proud of. And seeing how far I came, from knowing nothing to being here, makes me feel happy. If I can transform, anyone can do this too, if they choose to work hard, follow their own path and see it in themselves to take a risk.
What advice do you have for others looking to follow your path?
Listen to your gut. Your gut knows. It’s easy to feel discouraged when learning something new, but trust me, you’re not alone. You’ve always got to stay optimistic about finding a solution. I've always been someone who has experimented with a lot of things, and I think learning is something you should definitely experiment with. If the classroom setting is not for you, try teaching yourself, try a bootcamp, try asking a friend – just any alternative. There is nothing wrong with carving your own path when it comes to your education. Everyone’s at their own pace, just don’t give up!
My biggest inspiration is the future. I think about it on a daily basis. I know I have a very cheery, idealistic view on life, but I think, "What's wrong with that?" as long as you can bring it back to reality.
Speaking of that, what is your ultimate dream for your career and your future?
I was raised in the Bay Area, and I grew up in Santa Clara so the tech culture of Silicon Valley was inescapable. I love Silicon Valley, but there is still a huge homelessness issue. I’ve always thought, “We have the brightest engineers and scientists doing the most amazing, crazy things, yet we still can't alleviate homelessness.” Everybody deserves a place to sleep and shower. People need to have their basic needs met. I’d love to see some sort of VR wellness center that could help people train for a job, overcome fears and treat mental health.
That's my idealistic dream, but back to present-day dreams: I'm actually doing a 180. I'm leaving tech for a little bit, and I’m taking Fall quarter off. I'll start back at UCLA in January, but I'm taking a leave to explore being an artist. I'm writing a science-fiction play about Vietnamese-American culture. I was inspired by my experience here at JPL. I feel really optimistic about the future of technology, which is funny because science fiction usually likes to depict tech as something crazy, like an apocalypse or the world crashing down. But I'm like, “Vietnamese people survived an actual war, and they’re still here.” For my parents and grandparents, their country as they knew it came crashing down on them when they were just about my age. They escaped Vietnam by boat and faced many hardships as immigrants who came to America penniless and without knowing English. For them to have survived all of that and sacrificed so much to make it possible for me to be here is incredible. I think it’s a testament to how, despite the worst things, there's always good that continues. I’m so grateful and thankful for my family. I wouldn’t be here living my dream without them, and I want to create a play about that.
It's funny. Before I used to be so shy, so shy. I used to be that one kid who would never talk to anybody. So it's kind of nice to see what happens when the introvert comes out of her shell. And this is what happens. All of this. [Laughs.]
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
Origami is going to space and Chris Esquer-Rosas is helping it get there. A computer engineering student at San Bernardino Valley College in Southern California, Esquer-Rosas used to do origami only as a hobby, but now he’s using it to build a giant sunflower-shaped structure that his team hopes will provide a new window into worlds beyond our solar system. Esquer-Rosas explains how he’s putting his origami skills to use and what got him folding in the first place.
What are you working on at JPL?
I’m working on Starshade, specifically the Petal Launch and Unfurler System.
What is starshade and what is it supposed to do?
Starshade is a proposal to fly a giant, sunflower-shaped shade in front of a space telescope, so we can directly image exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system. One of the big issues that we have is that we know exoplanets are there, but we can’t get the data we want about them because the stars that the planets are surrounding are too bright and they're basically blocking our view. So what Starshade is going to do is suppress or diffract sunlight while a telescope with all the science instruments directly images those exoplanets. It will probably be a little image, like one-by-one pixel, but with that one image, we can actually get a ton of data about these exoplanets – so carbon dioxide emissions, possibly water vapor, methane, gases and things like that.
There's a lot of origami involved in building Starshade. How does it come into play?
When it unfurls in space, Starshade is supposed to be 36 meters (about 118 feet) in diameter, which is about the size of a baseball diamond, and it's supposed to be only 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) in diameter when it’s stowed for launch. We’re using origami concepts to make that possible. Origami involves a lot of math. A lot of people don't realize that. But what actually goes into it is lots of geometric shapes and angles that you have to account for. One of the first things that I started doing on Starshade was helping with the stow pattern. So starting out with one sheet, how do you fold it so you can stow it at a much smaller size? Do you want it to be taller or shorter? How many folds do you want? And then, how small do you want it to be? We developed a bunch of algorithms, so now all you have to do is input the specs, push enter, and a new pattern is created instead of having to refold things over and over and over again.
What are some of the challenges in getting that whole operation to work?
There are lots of challenges. The first challenge is making sure none of the petals gets nicked. [Starshade is shaped like a sunflower.] The petal edges are razor sharp and they are what allow the light to be diffracted so we can image the exoplanet. The curvature of the petals has to be within half-a-human-hair-width accuracy, so we have to make sure nothing happens to them. If any of them gets nicked, then now we have this giant bright spot in our images. We also have to make sure all the petals end up in the correct position once Starshade unfurls. And we have to make sure no light comes through any part of the Starshade itself.
Which of those challenges are you working on solving?
What I’m working on is making sure none of the petals touches each other. That's one of the big challenges. We have to find a way to slowly unwrap the petals so nothing interferes or touches any of the petal edges or the petal itself.
Meet JPL Interns
Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.
Tell me about your background in origami and how it brought you to JPL.
I've been doing origami since the fourth grade, when my teacher read us “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” At the end of the book, it teaches you how to fold your own paper crane. After I folded it, I just had this instinct to want to unfold it to see what it looked like. It has this unique pattern. So I started measuring it, and I figured out that different angles give you different lengths for the wings and the legs. So I was like, ok, what if you rotate the entire crease pattern 45 degrees? Now you get these more beautiful wings and you get a different shape. Then, I started folding other people's designs and learning how to design my own origami. I loved origami so much that I started learning the math behind it. A friend of mine, Robert Salazar, had started at JPL, and he was also an origami guy. We've been friends since seventh grade. He started on Starshade and then, eventually, he was leaving and he told them about me. They interviewed me a few times and then they were like, OK, come in and help us out.
Before that, did you have any idea there was an application for origami in space exploration?
I knew there were applications for other things like airbags and deployable mirrors, but I didn't know that there were space applications. That's what blew my mind. I was like, origami is going to space now? This is amazing.
Are you studying something origami-related in school?
I'm actually studying computer engineering, so it's completely different.
Has interning with Starshade made you want to change your career path?
It's like this close, because I've wanted to be a computer engineer since fourth grade as well. But since working here, a lot of the mechanical stuff has been a big learning experience. I didn't know mechanical engineering existed, but now that I do, it's amazing.
How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?
I feel like I'm contributing because, right now, interns are on the front lines of testing out the hardware and making sure everything works. We're dealing with issues, trying to fix them, and coming up with ideas. I feel like we're actually contributing a lot to how this thing could eventually deploy in space.
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
Try this lesson from NASA/JPL Edu to get involved and bring the excitement of NASA Mars exploration to students: