Category Archives: Education

NASA Space Place – Tackling The Really BIG Questions

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in February, 2013.

By Diane K. Fisher

2013february2_spaceplaceHow does NASA get its ideas for new astronomy and astrophysics missions? It starts with a Decadal Survey by the National Research Council, sponsored by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy. The last one, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics was completed in 2010. It defines the highest-priority research activities in the next decade for astronomy and astrophysics that will “set the nation firmly on the path to answering profound questions about the cosmos.” It defines space- and ground-based research activities in the large, midsize, and small budget categories.

The recommended activities are meant to advance three science objectives:

1. Deepening understanding of how the first stars, galaxies, and black holes formed,
2. Locating the closest habitable Earth-like planets beyond the solar system for detailed study, and
3. Using astronomical measurements to unravel the mysteries of gravity and probe fundamental physics.

For the 2012-2021 period, the highest-priority large mission recommended is the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). It would orbit the second Lagrange point and perform wide-field imaging and slitless spectroscopic surveys of the near-infrared sky for the community. It would settle essential questions in both exoplanet and dark energy research and would advance topics ranging from galaxy evolution to the study of objects within the galaxy and within the solar system.

Naturally, NASA’s strategic response to the recommendations in the decadal survey must take budget constraints and uncertainties into account.

The goal is to begin building this mission in 2017, after the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. But this timeframe is not assured. Alternatively, a different, less ambitious mission that also address the Decadal Survey science objectives for WFIRST would remain a high priority.

The Astrophysics Division is also doing studies of moderate-sized missions, including: gravitational wave mission concepts that would advance some or all of the science objectives of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), but at lower cost; X-ray mission concepts to advance the science objectives of the International X-ray Observatory (IXO), but at lower cost; and mission concept studies of probe-class missions to advance the science of a planet characterization and imaging mission.

For a summary of NASA’s plans for seeking answers to the big astrophysics questions and to read the complete Astrophysics Implementation Plan (dated December 2012), see science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/. For kids, find lots of astrophysics fun facts and games on The Space Place, spaceplace.nasa.gov/menu/space/.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: Clusters of galaxies collide in this composite image of “Pandora’s Cluster.” Data (in red) from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory show gas with temperatures of millions of degrees. Blue maps the total mass concentration (mostly dark matter) based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), and the Japanese Subaru telescope. Optical data from HST and VLT also show the constituent galaxies of the clusters. Such images begin to reveal the relationship between concentration of dark matter and the overall structure of the universe.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/

NASA Space Place – The Art of Space Imagery

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in January, 2013.

By Diane K. Fisher

2013february2_spaceplaceWhen you see spectacular space images taken in infrared light by the Spitzer Space Telescope and other non-visible-light telescopes, you may wonder where those beautiful colors came from? After all, if the telescopes were recording infrared or ultraviolet light, we wouldn’t see anything at all. So are the images “colorized” or “false colored”?

No, not really. The colors are translated. Just as a foreign language can be translated into our native language, an image made with light that falls outside the range of our seeing can be “translated” into colors we can see. Scientists process these images so they can not only see them, but they can also tease out all sorts of information the light can reveal. For example, wisely done color translation can reveal relative temperatures of stars, dust, and gas in the images, and show fine structural details of galaxies and nebulae.

Spitzer’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), for example, is a four-channel camera, meaning that it has four different detector arrays, each measuring light at one particular wavelength. Each image from each detector array resembles a grayscale image, because the entire detector array is responding to only one wavelength of light. However, the relative brightness will vary across the array.

So, starting with one detector array, the first step is to determine what is the brightest thing and the darkest thing in the image. Software is used to pick out this dynamic range and to re-compute the value of each pixel. This process produces a grey-scale image. At the end of this process, for Spitzer, we will have four grayscale images, one for each for the four IRAC detectors.

Matter of different temperatures emit different wavelengths of light. A cool object emits longer wavelengths (lower energies) of light than a warmer object. So, for each scene, we will see four grayscale images, each of them different.

Normally, the three primary colors are assigned to these gray-scale images based on the order they appear in the spectrum, with blue assigned to the shortest wavelength, and red to the longest. In the case of Spitzer, with four wavelengths to represent, a secondary color is chosen, such as yellow. So images that combine all four of the IRAC’s infrared detectors are remapped into red, yellow, green, and blue wavelengths in the visible part of the spectrum.

Download a new Spitzer poster of the center of the Milky Way. On the back is a more complete and colorfully-illustrated explanation of the “art of space imagery.” Go to spaceplace.nasa.gov/posters/#milky-way.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

2013february26_m101

Caption: This image of M101 combines images from four different telescopes, each detecting a different part of the spectrum. Red indicates infrared information from Spitzer’s 24-micron detector, and shows the cool dust in the galaxy. Yellow shows the visible starlight from the Hubble telescope. Cyan is ultraviolet light from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer space telescope, which shows the hottest and youngest stars. And magenta is X-ray energy detected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, indicating incredibly hot activity, like accretion around black holes.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/

NASA Space Place – Partnering to Solve Saturn’s Mysteries

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in December, 2012.

By Diane K. Fisher

2013february2_spaceplaceFrom December 2010 through mid-summer 2011, a giant storm raged in Saturn‘s northern hemisphere. It was clearly visible not only to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, but also astronomers here on Earth—even those watching from their back yards. The storm came as a surprise, since it was about 10 years earlier in Saturn’s seasonal cycle than expected from observations of similar storms in the past. Saturn’s year is about 30 Earth years. Saturn is tilted on its axis (about 27° to Earth’s 23°), causing it to have seasons as Earth does.

But even more surprising than the unseasonal storm was the related event that followed.

First, a giant bubble of very warm material broke through the clouds in the region of the now-abated storm, suddenly raising the temperature of Saturn’s stratosphere over 150 °F. Accompanying this enormous “burp” was a sudden increase in ethylene gas. It took Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer instrument to detect it.

According to Dr. Scott Edgington, Deputy Project Scientist for Cassini, “Ethylene [C2H4] is normally present in only very low concentrations in Saturn’s atmosphere and has been very difficult to detect. Although it is a transitional product of the thermochemical processes that normally occur in Saturn’s atmosphere, the concentrations detected concurrent with the big ‘burp’ were 100 times what we would expect.”

So what was going on?

Chemical reaction rates vary greatly with the energy available for the process. Saturn’s seasonal changes are exaggerated due to the effect of the rings acting as venetian blinds, throwing the northern hemisphere into shade during winter. So when the Sun again reaches the northern hemisphere, the photochemical reactions that take place in the atmosphere can speed up quickly. If not for its rings, Saturn’s seasons would vary as predictably as Earth’s.

But there may be another cycle going on besides the seasonal one. Computer models are based on expected reaction rates for the temperatures and pressures in Saturn’s atmosphere, explains Edgington. However, it is very difficult to validate those models here on Earth. Setting up a lab to replicate conditions on Saturn is not easy!

Also contributing to the apparent mystery is the fact that haze on Saturn often obscures the view of storms below. Only once in a while do storms punch through the hazes. Astronomers may have previously missed large storms, thus failing to notice any non-seasonal patterns.

As for atmospheric events that are visible to Earth-bound telescopes, Edgington is particularly grateful for non-professional astronomers. While these astronomers are free to watch a planet continuously over long periods and record their finding in photographs, Cassini and its several science instruments must be shared with other scientists. Observation time on Cassini is planned more than six months in advance, making it difficult to immediately train it on the unexpected. That’s where the volunteer astronomers come in, keeping a continuous watch on the changes taking place on Saturn.

Edgington says, “Astronomy is one of those fields of study where amateurs can contribute as much as professionals.”

Go to saturn.jpl.nasa.gov to read about the latest Cassini discoveries. For kids, The space Place has lots of ways to explore Saturn at spaceplace.nasa.gov/search/cassini.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

2013february26_saturn

Caption: This false-colored Cassini image of Saturn was taken in near-infrared light on January 12, 2011. Red and orange show clouds deep in the atmosphere. Yellow and green are intermediate clouds. White and blue are high clouds and haze. The rings appear as a thin, blue horizontal line.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/

NASA Space Place – A Cosmic Tease: Trials Of The Herschel Space Telescope Science Teams

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in October, 2012.

By Dr. Marc J. Kuchner

2013february2_spaceplaceVast fields of marble-sized chunks of ice and rock spun slowly in the darkness this week, and I sat in the back of a grey conference room with white plastic tables spread with papers and laptops. I was sitting in on a meeting of an international team of astronomers gathered to analyze data from the Herschel Infrared Observatory. This telescope, sometimes just called Herschel, orbits the Sun about a million miles from the Earth.

The meeting began with dinner at Karl’s house. Karl charred chorizo on the backyard grill while the airplanes dribbled into Dulles airport. Our colleagues arrived, jetlagged and yawning, from Germany, Sweden, and Spain, and we sat on Karl’s couches catching up on the latest gossip. The unemployment level in Spain is about twenty percent, so research funding there is hard to come by these days. That’s not nice to hear. But it cheered us up to be with old friends.

The meeting commenced the next morning, as the vast fields of ice and rock continued to spin—shards glinting in the starlight. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t exist at all.

You see, this team is looking at a series of images of stars taken by a device called a bolometer that is blind to ordinary starlight. Instead, the bolometer inside Herschel senses infrared light, a kind of light that we would probably refer to as heat if we could feel it. But the idea of pointing the bolometer at the stars was not to collect ordinary starlight. It was to measure heat coming from the vicinity of these stars, like an infrared security camera, in case there was something else to be found lurking nearby.

And lo and behold, for a handful of stars, the bolometer measurements were off the charts! Maybe something was orbiting these stars. From the details of the bolometer readings—which channels lit up and so on—you would guess that this stuff took the form of majestic fields or rings of icy and rocky particles. It would be a new kind of disk, a discovery worth writing home to Madrid about.

There are several teams of astronomers analyzing data from the Herschel Space Telescope. They call themselves by oddly inappropriate sounding acronyms: GASPS, DUNES, DEBRIS. For the time being, the scientists on these teams are the only ones with access to the Herschel data. But in January, all the data these teams are working on will suddenly be released to the public. So they are all under pressure to finish their work by then. The team whose meeting I was sitting in on would like to publish a paper about the new disks by then.

But it’s not so simple. The stars that this team had measured were relatively nearby as stars go, less than a few hundred light years. But the universe is big, and full of galaxies of all kinds—a sea of galaxies starting from maybe a hundred thousand light years away, and stretching on and on. Maybe one of those background galaxies was lined up with each of the stars that had lit up the bolometer—fooling us into thinking they were seeing disks around these stars.

The team argued and paced, and then broke for lunch. We marched to the cafeteria through the rain. Meanwhile, vast fields of marble-sized chunks of ice and rock spun slowly in the darkness. Or maybe they didn’t.

What else did Herschel recently uncover? Find out at spaceplace.nasa.gov/comet-ocean.

Dr. Marc J. Kuchner is an astrophysicist at the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA’s Astrophysics Division works on big questions about the origin and evolution of the universe, galaxies, and planetary systems. Explore more at www.science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/.

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Caption: Samuel Pierpoint Langley, who developed the bolometer in 1878. His instrument detects a broad range of infrared wavelengths, sensitive to differences in temperature of one hundred-thousandth of a degree Celsius (0.00001 C). In 1961, Frank Low developed the germanium bolometer, which is hundreds of times more sensitive than previous detectors and capable of detecting far-infrared radiation.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/

NASA Space Place – It Takes More Than Warm Porridge To Make A Goldilocks Zone

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in November, 2012.

By Diane K. Fisher

2013february2_spaceplaceThe “Goldilocks Zone” describes the region of a solar system that is just the right distance from the star to make a cozy, comfy home for a life-supporting planet. It is a region that keeps the planet warm enough to have a liquid ocean, but not so warm that the ocean boils off into space. Obviously, Earth orbits the Sun in our solar system’s “Goldilocks Zone.”

But there are other conditions besides temperature that make our part of the solar system comfortable for life. Using infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, along with theoretical models and archival observations, Rebecca Martin, a NASA Sagan Fellow from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and astronomer Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, have published a new study suggesting that our solar system and our place in it is special in at least one other way.

This fortunate “just right” condition involves Jupiter and its effect on the asteroid belt.
Many other solar systems discovered in the past decade have giant gas planets in very tight orbits around their stars. Only 19 out of 520 solar systems studied have Jupiter-like planets in orbits beyond what is known as the “snow line”—the distance from the star at which it is cool enough for water (and ammonia and methane) to condense into ice. Scientists believe our Jupiter formed a bit farther away from the Sun than it is now. Although the giant planet has moved a little closer to the Sun, it is still beyond the snow line.

So why do we care where Jupiter hangs out? Well, the gravity of Jupiter, with its mass of 318 Earths, has a profound effect on everything in its region, including the asteroid belt. The asteroid belt is a region between Mars and Jupiter where millions of mostly rocky objects (some water-bearing) orbit. They range in size from dwarf planet Ceres at more than 600 miles in diameter to grains of dust. In the early solar system, asteroids (along with comets) could have been partly responsible for delivering water to fill the ocean of a young Earth. They could have also brought organic molecules to Earth, from which life eventually evolved.

Jupiter’s gravity keeps the asteroids pretty much in their place in the asteroid belt, and doesn’t let them accrete to form another planet. If Jupiter had moved inward through the asteroid belt toward the Sun, it would have scattered the asteroids in all directions before Earth had time to form. And no asteroid belt means no impacts on Earth, no water delivery, and maybe no life-starting molecules either. Asteroids may have also delivered such useful metals as gold, platinum, and iron to Earth’s crust.

But, if Jupiter had not migrated inward at all since it formed father away from the Sun, the asteroid belt would be totally undisturbed and would be a lot more dense with asteroids than it is now. In that case, Earth would have been blasted with a lot more asteroid impacts, and life may have never had a chance to take root.

The infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope contributes in unexpected ways in revealing and supporting new ideas and theories about our universe. Read more about this study and other Spitzer contributions at spitzer.caltech.edu. Kids can learn about infrared light and enjoy solving Spitzer image puzzles at spaceplace.nasa.gov/spitzer-slyder.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

2013february18_asteroid

Caption: Our solar system is represented by the middle scenario, where the gas giant planet has migrated inward, but still remains beyond the asteroid belt.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/