The moment when a telescope first opens its doors represents the culmination of years of work and planning — while simultaneously laying the groundwork for a wealth of research and answers yet to come. It is a moment of excitement and perhaps even a little uncertainty. On July 17, 2013, the international team of scientists and engineers who supported and built NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, all lived through that moment. As the spacecraft orbited around Earth, the door of the telescope opened to view the mysterious lowest layers of the sun’s atmosphere and the results thus far are nothing short of amazing. The data is crisp and clear, showing unprecedented detail of this little-observed region.
To read more about IRIS and see images of the sun’s atmosphere, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/iris-telescope-first-glimpse-of-suns-mysterious-atmosphere/index.html#.Ufa_zYXTovQ
This story is a great extension to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Geometry: Space Math Problems—Solar Storms. To access this lesson, visit the NES Virtual Campus at: http://explorerschools.nasa.gov.
There is only one planet we know of, so far, that is drenched with life. That planet is Earth, as you may have guessed, and it has all the right conditions for critters to thrive on its surface. Do other planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets, also host life forms?
Astronomers still don’t know the answer, but they search for potentially habitable planets using a handful of criteria. Ideally, they want to find planets just like Earth, since we know without a doubt that life took root here. The hunt is on for planets about the size of Earth that orbit at just the right distance from their star – in a region termed the habitable zone.
NASA’s Kepler mission is helping scientists in the quest to find these worlds, sometimes called Goldilocks planets after the fairy tale because they orbit where conditions are “just right” for life. Kepler and other telescopes have confirmed a handful so far, all of which are a bit larger than Earth — the Super Earths. The search for Earth’s twin, a habitable-zone planet as small as Earth, is ongoing.
To read more about the search for life in the universe, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler20130717.html#.UebhlIXTovQ .
If you think your students would be interested in searching for habitable planets, check out the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Algeraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets. Students use algebra and Kepler’s 3rd Law to find habitable planets in other solar systems. To access this activity, visit the NES Virtual Campus.
On July 19, 2013, one of the most exciting events of the Cassini mission this year will be when the satellite takes images of the whole Saturn system while it is backlit by the sun. With Saturn covering the harsh light of the sun, mission scientists will be able to gather unique ring science.
Cassini is also going to take images of Earth from the satellite’s location in space, some 1.44 billion kilometers (898 million miles) away. Opportunities to image Earth from the outer solar system are few and far between, and special care must be taken so the satellite’s cameras are not “blinded” by looking in the direction of the sun, where Earth is. There have been only two images of Earth made from the outer solar system in all the time humankind has been exploring space. The first and most distant image was taken 23 years ago by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft from 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) away, showing Earth as a pale blue dot. The other image was captured by Cassini in 2006 from a distance of 1.49 billion kilometers (926 million miles).
Cassini’s July image is a special opportunity for Earthlings to wave at the “photographer” in the Saturn system. Mission personnel are asking you, or your group, to go outside July 19 and have a photograph taken of you or your group waving, while looking in the general direction of Saturn. You can share your pictures by joining the Flickr group wave at Saturn, adding them to the Wave at Saturn Facebook event page, or tagging pictures on Twitter #waveatsaturn. The mission hopes to make a special collage of all of the images if they receive enough of them.
The Cassini portrait session of Earth will last about 15 minutes from 2:27 to 2:42 p.m. PDT. For more information about Waving at Saturn, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/waveatsaturn/.
It has long been assumed that our solar system, like a comet, has a tail. Just as any object moving through another medium – for example, a meteor traveling through Earth’s atmosphere – causes the particles to form a stream trailing off behind it. But the tail of our solar bubble, called the heliosphere, has never actually been observed, until now.
NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, has mapped the boundaries of the tail of the heliosphere, something that has never before been possible. Scientists describe this tail, called the heliotail, in detail in a paper published on July 10, 2013, in The Astrophysical Journal. By combining observations from the first three years of IBEX imagery, the team mapped out a tail that shows a combination of fast and slow moving particles. There are two lobes of slower particles on the sides, faster particles above and below, with the entire structure twisted, as it experiences the pushing and pulling of magnetic fields outside the solar system.
To see images and read more about this development, visit https://www.nasa.gov/content/nasa-s-ibex-provides-first-view-of-the-solar-system-s-tail/index.html#.Ud74gIVTcvQ.
This discovery is a great extension to NASA Now: Space Science: Voyager’s Grand Tour of the Solar System. To access this video, visit the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus website.
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, has traveled more than half of the distance needed to get from a site where it spent 22 months to its next destination.
The rover has less than 800 meters to go to finish a 2 kilometer dash from the rim of one crater segment, where it has worked since mid-2011, to another, where mission controllers intend to keep Opportunity busy during the upcoming Martian winter.
Opportunity departed the southern tip of the Cape York segment 6 weeks ago and headed south for Solander Point. Both are raised portions of the western rim of 22 kilometer-wide Endeavour Crater, offering access to older geological deposits than the rover visited during its first seven years on Mars.
This story is a great extension to the NES NASA Now Mars Month episodes housed on the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus website.
To read more about Opportunity and why it’s heading to Solander Point, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/news/mer20130702.html#.UdReYoV8mds.
NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, solar observatory separated from its Pegasus rocket and is in the proper orbit. This followed a successful launch by the Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It was the final Pegasus launch currently manifested by NASA. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida managed the countdown and launch.
To read more about IRIS, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/iris/index.html
This article is a great extension to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Geometry: Space Math Problems—Solar Storms. Access this lesson on the NES Virtual Campus.
NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission has uncovered the origin of massive invisible regions that make the moon’s gravity uneven, a phenomenon that affects the operations of lunar-orbiting spacecraft.
Because of GRAIL’s findings, spacecraft on missions to other celestial bodies can navigate with greater precision in the future.
GRAIL’s twin spacecraft studied the internal structure and composition of the moon in unprecedented detail for nine months. They pinpointed the locations of large, dense regions called mass concentrations, or mascons, which are characterized by strong gravitational pull. Mascons lurk beneath the lunar surface and cannot be seen by normal optical cameras.
This mission update is a great classroom extension to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Engineering Design Process: On The Moon. To have your students playing the role of engineers in designing lunar missions, access this set of engineering design challenges on the NES Virtual Campus.
To read more about GRAIL’s discovery, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/grail/news/grail20130530.html.
Detailed analysis and review have borne out researchers’ initial interpretation of pebble-containing slabs that NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity investigated last year: They are part of an ancient stream bed.
The rocks are the first ever found on Mars that contain stream bed gravel. The sizes and shapes of the gravel embedded in these conglomerate rocks — from the size of sand particles to the size of golf balls — enabled researchers to calculate the depth and speed of the water that once flowed at this location.
To learn more about the challenges the Mars Science Laboratory team faced during Curiosity’s landing, also known as the “seven minutes of terror”, check out NASA Now: Forces and Motion: Curiosity—Entry, Descent and Landing. You can access this classroom video on the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus.
To read more about this discovery by Curiosity on Mars, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/news/msl20130530f.html
NASA’s first mission to sample an asteroid is moving ahead into development and testing in preparation for its launch in 2016.
The Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, passed a confirmation review Wednesday called Key Decision Point. NASA officials reviewed a series of detailed project assessments and authorized the spacecraft’s continuation into the development phase.OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu in 2018 and return a sample of it to Earth in 2023.
This is a great extension to NASA Now: Primitive Asteroids: OSIRIS-REx. NASA Now is an Emmy Award winning educational series provided by NASA Explorer Schools. To access this program, visit the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus.
To read more and watch a video overview of the OSIRIS-REx mission, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/osiris-rex/osiris-rex-development.html.
The Herschel space observatory has made detailed observations of surprisingly hot gas that may be orbiting or falling towards the supermassive black hole lurking at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Herschel is a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation.
Our galaxy’s black hole is located in a region known as Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short, which is a nearby source of radio waves. The black hole has a mass about four million times that of our sun and lies roughly 26,000 light-years away from our solar system.
This story is an extension to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Mathematical Models: Black Holes. To access this featured lesson, visit the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus.
To read more about the observations, visit NASA’s Herschel Space Observatory Web page.