Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Global Cloud Observation Day - Jan. 13, 2009!

In celebration of its 12th anniversary, NASA’s Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line (S'COOL) Project is declaring Jan. 13, 2009 to be a Global Cloud Observation Day. See for the latest information.

You can also find a PDF file for a tabloid-sized version of the flyer here:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Entries Due: Jan. 25, 2009

NASA, in cooperation with Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures' movie WALL-E from Pixar Animation Studios, will conduct a naming contest for its car-sized Mars Science Laboratory rover that is scheduled for launch in 2009. The contest is open to students 5 to 18 years old who attend a U.S. school and are enrolled in the current academic year. To enter the contest, students will submit essays explaining why their suggested name for the rover should be chosen. In March 2009, the public will have an opportunity to rank nine finalist names via the Internet as additional input for judges to consider during the selection process. NASA will announce the winning rover name in April 2009.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Aura Spies California Wildfires

Smoke from the recent outbreak of fires in Southern California can clearly be seen via NASA satellites. On the left, a red-green-blue (RGB) image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite shows the smoke being blown to the west from the Los Angeles basin to the waters of the Pacific Ocean on November 16, 2008. On the right, measurements of the Aerosol Index taken by the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) onboard NASA's Aura satellite are overlayed on top of the MODIS image. As can be seen in this image, the Aerosol Index, which measures the difference in the amount of ultraviolet (UV) light the atmosphere scatters back at given place and time to the amount of UV light that the atmosphere would scatter back if it were totally clear, can effectively detect smoke that is otherwise hard to detect via MODIS imagery as that smoke is transported over bright surfaces such as the low level marine stratocumulus clouds just off the coast. As a result, UV measurements from instruments such as OMI can be used to help detemine the effect such aerosols have on clouds.

MODIS image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response web site.
OMI AI image courtesy Colin Seftor, NASA Atmospheric Chemistry and Dynamics Branch

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Schools all over the world will wish NASA a happy birthday as part of an all-day virtual birthday party through NASA's Digital Learning Network on Thursday, Nov. 13.

The virtual party begins at 9 a.m. EST with live videoconferences occurring every hour on the hour until 6 p.m. Schools from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan, Mexico City, India, Slovenia and New Zealand will participate in the live digital connection.

During each webcast, international schools will connect with a U.S. school and one of NASA's 10 field centers. Each Digital Learning Network site will host a 45-minute videoconference featuring a unique program in NASA's 50 years of discovery and exploration in science, aeronautics and space.

Webcast topics for NASA's 50th birthday party include (all times EST):

- Space shuttle, hosted at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9 a.m.

- Project Mercury, hosted at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., at 10 a.m.

- The Viking Project, hosted at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., at 11 a.m.

- Hubble Space Telescope, hosted at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., at noon.

- Project Gemini, hosted at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston at 1 p.m.

- Stennis Space Center history, hosted at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi at 2 p.m.

- X-43, hosted at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., at 3 p.m.

- Icing Tunnel, hosted at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland at 4 p.m.

- Arc Jet Facility, hosted at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., at 5 p.m.

- Phoenix Mars Lander, hosted at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at 6 p.m.

The birthday party is being held through a partnership among NASA, Discovery Education of Silver Spring, Md., the U.S. Distance Learning Association of Boston and Polycom of Pleasanton, Calif.

NASA's Digital Learning Network began in the spring of 2004 with three hub sites at Langley, Glenn and Johnson and now extends to all 10 field centers. Through interactive videoconferencing, the network allows the next generation of explorers to connect with scientists, engineers and researchers without leaving the classroom. The distance-learning events are designed to educate through demonstrations and live interactions with NASA experts.

To view the live webcasts on Nov. 13, visit:

For more information about NASA's education programs, visit:

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Educators to Share MESSENGER's Second Mercury Flyby

On Monday, October 6, 2008, NASA's MESSENGER mission to Mercury will complete an important milestone, as the spacecraft makes its second flyby of its target planet. During the flyby, MESSENGER will swoop just 200 km (125 miles) above the cratered surface of Mercury, snapping hundreds of pictures and collecting a variety of other data from the planet as it gains a critical gravity assist that keeps the probe on track to become the first spacecraft ever to orbit the innermost planet in the Solar System in 2011.

Six MESSENGER Educator Fellows, master science educators talented atspeaking to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, will observe the flyby activities at the Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and report on their experiences in real time using social networking sites on the Internet. Through the Fellows' eyes, teachers, students, and the general public around the world will be able to share the engineers' excitement as the spacecraft performs a maneuver crucial to the success of the mission, and experience the scientists' exhilaration as new science data never before seen by any human being arrives during the days following the flyby.

Join the MESSENGER Educator Fellows as they report on MESSENGER's second flyby of Mercury by navigating to the Fellows at the Flyby page at:
Follow the links therein to the individual Fellows' Facebook, Twitter, Wiki and blog pages.

The MESSENGER to Mercury mission is supported by the NASA Discovery Program under contract to the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. For more information on the
MESSENGER mission, visit

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stratospheric Ozone Hole Reaches New Yearly Low

As always, Aura is monitoring stratospheric ozone levels. Yesterday, the "hole" or thinning over Antarctica reached a new low concentration - 106 Dobson units - for 2008.

Each year, ozone levels in the stratosphere drop in the Arctic and Antarctic in their respective winters. Cold temperatures in the atmosphere result in isolation of the air masses above the Arctic and Antarctic circles. This isolation, along with cold temperatures promote chemical reactions that favor the release of a chlorine atom from chemical compounds such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). This Cl atom attaches itself to an oxygen atom and removes it from the ozone molecule. The result is a reduction of ozone in the ozone layer. This process is seasonal - once spring comes around and atmospheric temperatures rise, the isolated air masses return to normal circulation and the chemical reactions that caused the release of chlorine are no longer viable. Ozone levels in the stratosphere then return to normal.

Why are we so interested in stratospheric ozone hole? The ozone in the stratosphere protects all living beings on earth from harmful ultraviolet-c radiation. This uv-c causes the DNA in cells to break down, which can result in cancer. Without the ozone layer, uv-c would be able to penetrate the atmosphere and it would wreak havoc on all living things.

The Aura spacecraft also measures the other chemical players in the reactions that lead to the break down of ozone in the stratosphere in order to better understand how these reactions happen. This understanding can lead to the prevention of the release of chemicals that cause ozone loss into the atmosphere.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Top NASA Photos of All Time 50 indelible images from the first 50 years of spaceflight

The Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum has published its top 50 NASA photos of all time in honor of NASA's 50th anniversary.

Visitors to: can view the top 31 images.

The following is from the Air and Space Magazine website.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which began its operations on October 1, 1958, we offer this list of the 50 most memorable images from NASA’s history . We recognize that any such ranking is inherently subjective. The rationale for why any one image ranked two slots higher than any other combines several factors, including our attempt to balance the list between human spaceflight, satellite imaging, and planetary exploration. Many wonderful images did not make the final cut—we couldn’t convince the editors to give us 20 pages instead of 10.

The list omits significant events from space history that were not NASA achievements, such as the famous 1958 photograph of Wernher von Braun and the other architects of the Explorer 1 satellite celebrating their success by holding a model of the satellite over their heads, an event that occurred months before NASA existed. Photos from the Apollo moon program predominate, as well they should—it remains the agency’s crowning achievement. We also recognize that, even though the first “A” in NASA stands for “aeronautics,” our list is light on aeronautical breakthroughs (see Moments & Milestones, p. 84). Our only excuse is that the ranking reflects the affinity of the division of space history staff for space topics. (

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Launch Fest at Goddard Space Flight Center

We are all recovering from Launch Fest, an open house that was held at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) on September 13. According to estimates from our Public Affairs Office, 13,000 people came to see what GSFC is all about! Each of our projects were represented in some way:

  • LRO had exhibits and displays outside of the white room, where the spacecraft was prominently on display
  • Aura had banners and activities that discussed the role of uv radiation in the processes that control the stratospheric ozone hole
  • SAM opened its doors to the Mars atmosphere simulation chamber and showed animations of the Mars Science Lab doing geochemistry on Mars
  • LOLA displayed the engineering model of the instrument along with the heritage instruments MOLA and MLA (aboard MESSENGER), as well as animations of what data from LRO will look like
  • New Horizons had animations of the spacecraft and science results from the Jupiter flyby
Our scientists and engineers did a wonderful job talking about the work they do at GSFC as well as how Goddard contributes to exploration.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Astrobiology 2008 - The first music video about Astrobiology

This is a rap video about astrobiology - The search for life in space, particularly on other worlds called exoplanets.

The video has references to:- the origin of life, Genes, DNA and species, Space age, NASA, Lunar Travel, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)and ET life, Frank Drake, Goldilocks (Habitable) zone, Astronomy, Doppler shift, biology VS mythology,

Friday, August 15, 2008

NASA Edge Visits LRO

NASA Edge heads into the LRO cleanroom
Originally uploaded by geosteph

The team from NASA Edge came to Goddard Space Flight Center on August 14th to prepare for a vodcast on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. They spent the day over in building 7 - where LRO was built, had it's six instruments integrated, and is now undergoing a series to tests in preparation for a late February launch.

The Edge guys spent time in the LRO cleanroom chatting with folks responsible for integration and testing. They also interviewed several Goddard scientists about the mission.

What a great team! We really enjoyed hosting NASA Edge at Goddard and hope they come back to visit again soon.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Check out NASA

Ever wanted to search through NASA's awesome images in one place? Well, now you can. NASA Images is a service of Internet Archive, a non-profit library, to offer public access to NASA's collections. The goal of NASA Images is to increase our understanding of the Earth, Solar System and Universe in order to benefit humanity. NASA Images will continue to grow with the addition of current media from NASA as well as newly digitized media from the NASA archives.

Users can search through images of the Universe, Solar System, Earth, and astronauts. In addition, you can use a handy time line to search for images by date and missions/programs, all the way from Explorer I in 1959 through current missions to the International Space Station. The image above is the first image of the Earth and Moon in a single frame. It was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1977 when it was 7.25 million miles from Earth. Enjoy!!

Friday, July 11, 2008

LRO Update

Ok, I was inspired to write this post because of the picture that was sent out by our Project Manager, Craig Tooley. Let me just get this out of my system - LRO is HOT! Ok. I feel better now.

The picture to the left is of LRO on what is called an Aronson table. The Aronson table enables our engineers to move the spacecraft to different orientations (ie, put the spacecraft on different sides) for testing purposes.

Right now, our spacecraft is undergoing CPT, or Comprehensive Performance Test. This is where we check out all of the systems on the spacecraft while we simulate going through various stages in flight. Our engineers are working around the clock to make sure that everything is functioning properly. You can think of it like doing a practice run before we actually go into space. These tests are critical to working out all the bugs!

LRO has also simultaneously been undergoing the blanketing process. The entire spacecraft needs to be covered in protective material to ensure that it is kept "warm" while in space. The blanket material is the shiny metallic coverings seen on the above photo. The blanketing process is one of the last hardware processes. The last thing that needs to be done to the spacecraft is the installation of the solar array, which is scheduled for Monday, July 14. Once the installation of the solar array is over, LRO will be completely assembled!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Submit Questions for Lunar Science Conference

The first NASA Lunar Science Conference will be held at NASA Ames Research Center July 20th-23rd. Here is your chance to ask questions via YouTube video..much like the CNN presidential debates! We invite you to join the discussion by submitting a video.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Extended Deadline - Send your name to the Moon with LRO!

Have you ever wanted to go to the Moon, but didn't have the money? What about going for free? If you haven't yet signed up to send your name to the Moon, you still have time! Due to overwhelming response from people around the world, we have decided to extend the deadline to send your name to the Moon!

You have until July 25th to send in your name and get your certificate! Don't forget to tell your friends and family too.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pluto Gets a New Designation

It was just two years ago when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet. This caused some havoc to many people who grew up knowing Pluto was the ninth planet. Besides having to start teaching children the 'new' Solar System, textbooks and activities would have to be rewritten to indicate its new title as a transneptunian dwarf planets or a dwarf planet.

A dwarf planet was described as: "a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape2 , (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite."(

Once again the IAU has changed Pluto's designation. Pluto is notw a Plutoid. "Plutoids are celestial bodies in orbit around the Sun at a distance greater than that of Neptune that have sufficient mass for their self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that they assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (near-spherical) shape, and that have not cleared the neighbourhood around their orbit. Satellites of plutoids are not plutoids themselves, even if they are massive enough that their shape is dictated by self-gravity." (

At this time there are only two objects designated as Plutiods. The first is Pluto, and the other is Eris. The dwarf planet Ceres, located between Mars and Jupiter, is not considered a Plutiod. As more dwarf planets are discovered, they may too join the ranks of Pluto and Eris as a Plutiod.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Visit NASA at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival!

Meet NASA employees and learn about all that NASA does at the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Festival will be on the National Mall during June 25-29 and July 2-6 from 11:00am-5:30pm each day. NASA will feature exhibits and family-friendly activities on space science, earth science, human spaceflight, robotics, observatories, food in space, space art, the space shuttle, the international space station, launch and mission control, propulsion, future missions, aeronautics, and a lunar outpost. The Festival organizers are encouraging cultural conversations between visitors and NASA staff. This is an excellent opportunity to find out about NASA careers or to ask that burning question you have about Mars or the Moon!

Each NASA Center is participating, including our own Goddard Space Flight Center. Goddard will feature exhibits and activities on the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, Landsat imagery, UV radiation, the ozone, magnetism, astrophysics missions and science, and heliophysics missions and science, including an opportunity to safely view the Sun through a telescope!

In addition to NASA, the country of Bhutan and the food, music, and wine of Texas will also be featured. The Festival is free to attend, so we hope to see you there!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Help Scientists Find the Mars Polar Lander

In 1999, the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) failed to send a signal to Earth after it was supposed to have landed on Mars, leading scientists and engineers to believe it most likely crashed. However, scientists still don't know exactly what happened to MPL, nor where exactly it crashed on the surface of Mars. In the wake of MPL's failure, the University of Arizona proposed the Phoenix Mars Lander. On May 25th, Phoenix will be landing in the high northern latitudes of Mars in an attempt to accomplish many of the same science goals as the doomed MPL.

Recently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), released 18 images of the supposed MPL landing/crash site. They are asking for the public's help in locating the doomed MPL lander. Each image is HUGE, approximately 1.6 billion pixels. "If your computer screen is 1000 by 1000, that means you need 1600 screen shots to view one image," says Alfred McEwen, who leads the HiRISE team. If you'd like to learn more and participate, check out these sites: New Scientist and HiRISE blog.

To learn more about the Phoenix Mars Lander and the events surrounding its may 25th landing, click here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Would you like to go to the Moon?

At this time, NASA is not sending people there, just LRO and LCROSS. But you can send a little part of yourself there... your name.

The Send Your Name to the Moon Web site enables everyone to participate in NASA's lunar adventure and place their names in orbit around the Moon for years to come. Participants can submit their information at, print a certificate and have their name entered into a database. The database will be placed on a microchip that will be integrated onto the LRO spacecraft. The deadline for submitting names is June 27, 2008.

While you're online, check out the new videos on the LRO mission page:

Join us at the Moon!!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Geology 101 from the Cascades!

I’m on the road (again) this week. This time, I’m in Portland, Oregon. I flew out a couple of days early to get some vacation time. While the weather hasn’t exactly been cooperating, the geology certainly has!

I did some driving today through the Columbia River Gorge and around Mount Hood, and I wanted to share with you some really cool geology from the area.

First of all, I should probably provide some background. The Columbia River Gorge has been (after all, it is still being formed) formed through a series of events that have occurred to give it its current configuration. This configuration was especially important for the Oregon Trail, but that’s a whole different post.

Anyway, between 17 and 12 million years ago, the Columbia River plateau formed from a series of flood basalt flows. These flows were unlike anything we see today. The area covered by these flows (similar flows occurred in the Deccan Traps) includes portions of today’s Washington, Oregon, and Idaho - to the tune of 164,000 square kilometers. As these basalt flows (think the same kind of rock found in the Hawai’ian islands) cooled, the rocks cracked, forming columnar basalts. I was able to see these columnar basalts when I visited several waterfalls along the gorge.

Since then, the area witnessed the birth of the Cascade Mountain range. Unlike other mountain ranges such as the Sierra Nevadas or the Appalachian Mountains, the Cascade Range consists of a series of volcanoes. Among these volcanoes are the infamous Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, and Mount Hood. Because of their proximity to subducting tectonic plates, these volcanoes erupt with a siliceous magma that is very viscous (hard to flow). These rocks form a special kind of volcanic rock called andesite, and can be seen not only throughout the Cascades, but also the Andes (hence the name - ande-site). Today, as I circled around Mount Hood, I came across some of those andesites.

At the same time the Cascades were forming, the entire area has undergone a tectonic uplift, raising the continental crust. The action from the mighty Columbia River has served to form what is now known as the Columbia River Gorge. It’s the same kind of process that has helped form the Grand Canyon. As the continental crust raises, the river’s force has scoured out the landscape as it makes its way to the ocean. Because the area rose so rapidly (in geologic times, mind you), the river gouged out a narrow passageway instead of meandering its way across the land. To picture the difference between the two processes, think of a comparison between the Grand Canyon and the Mississippi River delta. One is deep and narrow, one is wide and flat.

Well folks, there you have it. Geology 101 from the Cascades. I hope the next time you step out your front door, think of all the things that had to take place in the past to shape the land to its current configuration!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Atmosphere: Change is in the Air

Several years ago I had the opportunity to work with the Smithsonian Institution Natural History Museum on an exhibit about the Earth's atmosphere. The EOS Aura education and outreach program funded the creation of the "Atmosphere: Change is in the Air" exhibit as part of the Smithsonian's "Forces of Change" program. I work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, a very cool (in a geeky sort of way) place-but when I got my temporary badge for the Natural History Museum I felt like a little kid... my pass to go behind the scenes at Natural History!! I worked with scientists, exhibit developers and graphic designers and learned how I little I knew about story telling through museum exhibits. The final product included large panels, interactive kiosks, movies and still images from satellites and my favorite component- the Oxygen Theater (you can find this video and other images and stills in the Media Library of the Forces of Change webiste)

Here is more information on the "Atmosphere: Change is in the Air" website:

Explore Earth’s changing atmosphere. Discover how our ever-changing atmosphere transports substances around the globe, protects life from destruction, and supports millions of chemical reactions. Find out how scientists track changes in the atmosphere and why they matter to everything that breathes.

This web site incorporates images and information from the Atmosphere: Change is in the Air exhibition developed by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which was on display at the Museum through November 2006. The exhibition explores the chemistry, properties, and significance of earth’s atmosphere—the invisible envelope that surrounds and affects us all.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Volcanoes + Satellites = Awesomeness

There are days when I want to run through the halls of my office screaming like a banshee because I'm so frustrated with people (who think they know what we do but haven't the first incling) who make our work lives a living nightmare. 1.

Then there are days where I'm reminded of how much I love what I do, and how cool and very utterly exciting all of it is.

Today started like that first description. Scratch that - the past week has been like that first description. As I sat down to write this blog entry, however, today became one of those days that's like the second description. I was instantly reminded of why I got into this buisness in the first place:

Science + New ways to view the world = Awesomeness

The variables in the above equation can be substituted with just about any kind of scientific pursuit, such as it is in the title of this blog entry.


What in the world am I talking about, you might ask? It's simple. Take one constantly erupting volcano, add in some high-tech observations from 705 km (438 miles) above the Earth, and presto! Instant awesomeness.

Kilauea volcano has been making the news rounds lately because it started erupting from the main caldera in March. (You can find out information about the eruption here). According to the Associated Press, prior to the March eruptions, Kilauea's caldera hadn't erupted since 1924. Back then, the best scientific data we could get about volcanic gases came from a view rare souls who were brave enough to get as close as they dared. Flash forward to the present. Now, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) aboard the Aura spacecraft has been taking daily data on the SO2 emissions from Halema 'uma 'u vent. These data show the enormous amout of SO2 that is spewing from the vent, and give us that information on a daily basis.

Like I said, one of the reasons why I love what I do.

The images on this page show 1. Kilauea from the ground and from 2. Aura's OMI instrument.

Related links:
Kilauea volcano
OMI SO2 measurements
Earth Observatory article on OMI SO2 and Kilauea

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Party at Yuri's Night DC - April 12, 2008

Yuri's Night is almost here! Yuri's Night is an annual, worldwide event to celebrate manned spaceflight. On April 12, 1961, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel into space. Twenty years later, on April 12, 1981, the US launched the first space shuttle mission. Yuri's Night is celebrated all over the world - last year events were held in over 30 countries! If you live in the DC, MD, VA area you can celebrate Yuri's Night 2008 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, on April 12. According to the website, you'll be able to... "Groove to live music from the popular local band, the Cassettes or DJ Scientifics' hip hop infused beats. Jump in our Moon Bounce. Kick back with a NASA rocket scientist. Climb in a Mercury Capsule. Check out the ultimate disco ball, the Science on a Sphere Exhibit. Chill out in the glow of extrasolar planets." There will also be contests and give-aways! The party will run from 7pm-1am. Shuttle service will be available between Goddard and the Greenbelt Metro Station.

Check out the Yuri's Night 2008 website for more information on festivities, tickets, directions, etc. Hope to see you all there!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Back in MD after a successful and interesting LPSC

Last week Steph and I attended the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in TX. We had a great time, caught up with old friends, met new ones, and learned a lot. The two education workshops, one on the Moon and one on Mercury and Pluto, went well. Our poster presentation on Tuesday night was also a hit. We had tons of people stop by from various NASA centers and missions, universities, and even the European Space Agency (ESA). While most of the visitors to our poster had heard of Second Life before, not many of them had ever tried it out. All were surprised to learn about all of the space-and science-related activities already occurring there and were very intrigued by our suggestions for how it could be used for participatory exploration.

For a great account of the week's events and some of the major scientific presentations from LPSC, visit this Nature reporter's blog.

Friday, March 7, 2008

39th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

Geosteph and I are leaving this weekend to travel to TX for the 39th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It's a week-long conference for international planetary scientists and educators to present their current research and mission results. The conference consists of both talks and poster presentations on a variety of subjects. View the enitre program, which includes links to the abstracts.

On Sunday, Geosteph will help lead a workshop called Reaching the Moon for planetary scientists and educators. Then on Wednesday we'll both lead a workshop for educators called Fire and Ice about the MESSENGER mission to Mercury and the New Horizons mission to Pluto. There may still be slots available for these workshops. Click here to learn more.

On Tuesday, we will be presenting a poster on Tuesday night in the Education and Public Outreach Programs session to accompany our abstract, which is about how NASA might use Second Life for informal space science education and participatory exploration.

If we're lucky, Geosteph might tweet from the meeting so stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How much ice might be on Mercury? Use math to find out!

The NASA MESSENGER spacecraft performed its first flyby of Mercury on January 14, 2008. In addition to mapping the entire surface of the planet, one of its goals is to shed new light on the existence of ice in the polar regions of this hot planet. Ice on Mercury? It's not as strange as it seems! Click here to learn more and to access a pdf that provides a series of space math questions (and an answer key) related to this topic. For more classroom activities related to ice in on Mercury and elsewhere in our solar system click here. For more space math problems visit A new space math problem is added every week!

Monday, March 3, 2008

LRO Looking like a spacecraft!

Howdy folks. Last week was a really exciting week for us here at Goddard Space Flight Center. On Thursday, February 28, four of the six outermost panels were attached to the propulsion module! We were sure to capture the exciting progress so all of you could see it too! The video included in this blog shows the hard-working people of LRO in the clean room assembling the bits and pieces of the spacecraft. You'll first see the avionics panel being set upright. Then the propulsion tank assembly is brought into the tent, and the instrument module, reaction wheel, and avionics panels are attached. As you can see, our little spacecraft is growing up!

Friday, February 29, 2008

NASA and Gen Y Perspectives

This presentation was produced by four young NASA employees. They presented it at the Next Generation Exploration Conference held earlier this month at NASA Ames Research Center. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin was in the audience. The presentation was remarked upon by Wired a few days ago. According to Wired, "The presentation chronicles their love of space and the heartbreak of working at an agency that has had such a tough time connecting with the rest of their generation and getting them excited about space. It also talks about how important the under 30 crowd is. They are the ones who will pay for the bulk of the cost of the return to the Moon. By 2014, they will comprise 47% of the workforce. Is NASA ready? How can we help?"

Shared with permission.

SlideShare Link

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A New Mnemonic to Help You Remember the Planets

Ten year old Maryn Smith from Montana recently won a contest to create a new mnemonic for remembering the newly assigned 11 planets, including 3 dwarf planets, in our solar system. The 11 planets are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and Eris. The dwarf planets are Ceres, Pluto, and Eris. Her mnemonic is:

My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants.

To read the full story about Maryn's mnemonic, which will be published in a book and recorded in a song to be released in March, click here.
To learn more about dwarf planets, click here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Follow the Carbon." Follow the What??

Recently I had the pleasure of writing an article about the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments onboard the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) for the February 2008 issue of ChemMatters, which is a publication of the American Chemical Society for high school classrooms. Below is an excerpt from the article. To download and read the entire article (including a Spanish translation) and issue, as well as to access the accompanying teacher's guide, click here.

“Follow the yellow brick road”. “Follow the leader”. You’re probably familiar with both of these phrases. But who would want to “follow the carbon” and what does that even mean? To NASA, “follow the carbon” means to identify carbon-bearing compounds, their sources, and the processes that transform them in order to evaluate the habitability of Mars. And that is exactly what the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments onboard the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) intends to do. MSL is scheduled to launch in late 2009 and will land on the surface of Mars in mid 2010, where it will spend at least one Mars year (687 Earth days) roving around the surface and collecting data. MSL will be the biggest rover yet to visit Mars. It will also carry the biggest suite of instruments ever sent to the martian surface, including a camera, neutron detector, laser, microscope, and an analytical laboratory. SAM is one component of this laboratory. SAM plans to “find the carbon” on Mars by collecting samples of the soil and atmosphere and analyzing them with three scientific instruments. Using the results obtained by the SAM instruments, scientists back on Earth will seek to investigate the habitability of Mars by answering the question, “What do the presence or absence and characteristics of key compounds at Mars tell us about the ability of Mars to support past or present life?”

Monday, February 25, 2008

Latest image from the Mercury Flyby

As MESSENGER flew by Mercury, the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) captured this view on January 14, 2008. Two of the larger craters in this image appear to have darkened crater rims and partial “halos” of dark material immediately surrounding the craters. Both craters appear to have nearly complete rims and interior terraced walls, suggesting that they formed more recently than the other nearby shallower craters of similar size. There are two possible explanations for their dark halos: (1) Darker subsurface material may have been excavated during the explosions from the asteroid or comet impacts that produced the craters. (2) Large cratering explosions may have melted a fraction of the rocky surface material involved in the explosions, splashing so-called “impact melts” across the surface; such melted rock is often darker (lower albedo) than the pre-impact target material.

For more images check out

Catch up on the latest planetary science news with "Planetary Science Research Discoveries"

Planetary Science Research Discoveries (PSRD) is an educational site that summarizes the latest research on meteorites, asteroids, planets, and other bodies within our solar system. The site is supported by the Cosmochemistry Program of NASA's Science Mission Directorate and by the Hawai'i Space Grant Consortium. In existence since 1996, PSRD maintains a searchable archive of its issues, as well as a helpful glossary. The articles are neither too technical nor too simplified and include links to additional information and resources to help readers further their understanding of a particular topic. You may also choose to subscribe to be notified via email when new issues are posted. It's an excellent way to learn about current scientific research from the scientists who are actually doing the research!

The most recent article of PSRD focuses on the formation of the Moon. Check it out!!

Friday, February 22, 2008

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center-WETA All Access

On Thursday, February 28, 2008, at 8:00 pm WETA TV 26 will broadcast "NASA Goddard Space Flight Center-WETA All Access". This 30 minute feature covers the Center's major achievements in space flight, the ins and outs of a space mission, earthbound work, and the extensive and impressive team behind it all. This is a Washington DC station. Please for video of this program.

WETA announcement available at:

Thursday, February 21, 2008

On the Road for LRO: Earthquake!

Hi all! I just wanted to let you know that I'm here in Salt Lake City for the International Technology Education Association (ITEA) Conference, and as I was sitting here this morning, I felt the 6.3 Magnitude earthquake that was centered near Wells, NV.

I have never been in an earthquake before, so imagine my surprise as I was sitting here doing some work, and felt the bed begin to shake! I looked up from the computer and could see the contrast of the white comforter cover moving against the dark wood furniture. The first thing I did was IM my fiance and tell him the bed was shaking. I got up to look out the window to see if anything was moving outside, but I couldn't detect any movement. I sat back down on the bed, and lo and behold, it was still shaking.

I can tell you that the timing of this thing couldn't have been more fortuitous for me. I have been to California many times before, and was never lucky enough to feel an earthquake. And since I arrived last night, I am still on East Coast time, so I was awake and aware this morning when the ground began to shake. And, this is the most intense earthquake the area has felt in quite awhile.

The news is currently reporting damage from Wells, and so far, there are no reports of injuries.

Well, that's all. I just wanted to give you a firsthand account of an earthquake, coming to you from Salt Lake City!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

View Tonight's Total Lunar Eclipse - The Last One Until 2010!

Tonight, February 20, 2008, will be your last opportunity to view a total lunar eclipse until December 2010. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth lines up directly between the Sun and Moon such that the Earth's shadow completely covers the Moon's surface. Tonight's eclipse will last for about 3.5 hours, 50 minutes of which the Moon will be in totality. During the eclipse the Moon will change color from gray to red. This is due to the glow cast on the Moon from indirect sunlight passing through Earth's atmosphere. The Moon's color during an eclipse varies based on the amounts of dust and clouds in the Earth's atmosphere. The more dust in the Earth's atmosphere, the more red the Moon will appear. The United States will be able to view the majority of the eclipse. Click on the above map above to determine your best viewing times.

To learn more about tonight's eclipse, see the NASA Eclipse Home Page and this NASA feature story. To learn more about eclipse terminology, see the Educator's Guide to Eclipses. Click here for a classroom activity on creating two scale models of the Earth-Moon system that can be used to demonstrate lunar phases and eclipses. Click here for an eclipse viewing activity for students.

Happy viewing!!!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Other Side of the Moon: Synchronous Rotation lesson

Have you ever wondered why we only see one side of the Moon? Well, the reason why we never get a shot of the far side of the moon is because the Moon is in what we call a "synchronous rotation" with the Earth. That is, it takes the Moon the same amount of time to rotate on its axis (or one lunar day) as it does to make one orbit around the Earth. The lesson highlighted in this entry was written by the Cassini team to explain how moons move in synchronous orbits.

Grades 5-8
Time required: 1 hour

Desk chair that rotates
Rubber, styrofoam, or tennis ball
Pencil or long dowel
Marking pen
Desk lamp or overhead projector
Optional: strong adhesive tape


Stick the pencil or dowel (for use as a handle) through the ball along a diameter; this simulates the Moon. With the marking pen, write a large letter or number every 90 degrees around the circumference of the ball. The handle will either be held at arm’s length by a student sitting in the chair or it can be taped to the armrest of the chair. Place the chair (Earth) a few feet away from the desk lamp or over- head projector (the Sun). The students can stay in their seats for this demonstration or they can gather in a circle around the Sun–Earth–Moon system. Ask the students if the Moon rotates. Most will say no, since they have seen the same face of the Moon whenever they have looked up in the sky at it. Choose a student to sit in the chair and watch the ball-Moon with numbers/letters on its quadrants. Slowly turn the student in the chair and ask that student if the view of the Moon is changing. The answer will be no; the hemisphere the student observes is always the same. In contrast, the other students will see the different quadrants appear as the chair makes one full rotation. This proves that the Moon rotates, even though it presents the same face to Earth (the student in the chair).

For the full lesson, please see lesson "What is Synchronous Rotation?" on the Saturn Educator web page.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Aura Sees Volcanic Plumes in Near Real-Time

Orbiting 700 km above the Earth, NASA’s Aura spacecraft is responsible for keeping an eye on the health of our atmosphere. So, when a volcano decides to cough some of its fumes into the air, Aura is there to see it. That’s what happened during the January 1, 2008 eruption of the Llaima Volcano in Chile. As the volcano erupted, Aura orbited overhead and picked up the SO2 emissions from the volcano. The resulting image shows the movement of the plume of volcanic gas over the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to understanding the movement of air masses in the atmosphere, tracking volcanic plumes is important because the resulting ash and acidic air masses can cause damage to aircraft. This isn’t the first time Aura was able to spot volcanic plumes. Scientists studying Aura data were also able to track the eruption of the Anatahan and Soufriere Hills Volcanic eruptions in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

For more information about how Aura tracks the volcanic eruptions, visit the following websites:

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Blip in Time Makes Nine…

On its long journey to Pluto, New Horizons has very little to do but sit and ponder the great Pluto debate. But occasionally, the spacecraft wakes up and takes a look around its neighborhood. Such an instance occurred on October 6, 2007. The Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons woke up and took a high-resolution look around. Low and behold, LORRI spotted Pluto! It took an exposure of 0.967 seconds to get enough light off the surface of Pluto to be able to see it in the image.

To read the press release about this image, visit:

Friday, February 8, 2008

What will radiation do to Moon travelers?? LRO will find out!

Check out this video of astronomer Harlan Spence talking about CRaTER (Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation), an experiment that will be on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter when it launches later this year. CRaTER will collect data on the Moon's radiation environment. This information will help engineers design spacecraft, spacesuits, and habitats that wil protect the astronauts that will one day travel to and live on the Moon.

For you science teachers out there that will be attending next month's National Science Teachers Association meeting in Boston, Dr. Spence will be giving a presentation on CRaTER, LRO and the Moon on Sunday (3/30/08) from 11am-noon in Room 257A of the Boston Convention Center. Check it out!! And while you're there, also check out the NASA booth in the exhibit hall. Most of us bloggers from Adventures in Earth and Space will be there.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Rock and Rocket Science

Back in November Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band did two concerts at the Verizon Center in Washington DC. We invited the band and the crew for a tour of Goddard and behind the scenes look at the LRO mission. Five members of the crew came to visit (photos here).

Kurt Wolak, the keyboard programmer on the tour sent me this message comparing rock to rocket science a few days after their visit. The pictures in this post are from their tour of Goddard.

On this tour I am a keyboard programmer (and re-programmer). In the world of instrument techs, we are often referred to as the rocket scientists, huddled over our displays punching buttons and twirling jog wheels. Due to your graciousness, I have now confabbed with real rocket scientists in the rocket scientist clubhouse.

After I saw the room with the flat sat and the test team, I had to laugh on how similar my workspace looks and operates when I am designing and setting up a keyboard rig for a tour.

It must be able to be delivered to a predetermined set of coordinates, deploy, perform a mission, and return safely. It must be re-deployable again and again, or the next show will be, well, deplorable.

It is assembled from instruments constructed by different teams from different countries at different points in time. Sometimes components are pillaged from previous missions for cost and timeline reasons. Somehow this disparate pile needs to communicate and function together, so...
We drag all that stuff (and the stuff to test that stuff, and the stuff needed to fix the stuff once the test stuff confirms that something's whack) and a big pile of cable and connectors into a room, set it up on some tables and equipment stands and after (insert indeterminate number of hours and dollars, pizza and beer), we make it work, debug, improve, increase robustness.

We build mock ups redundant systems/components and data capture/backup are part of the design criteria. Technical support from the component manufacturers can be a daunting prospect.

We build complex wiring harnesses using a variety of connectors and ports. There are people in our field who are specialists at this; these harnesses are a core component and vital to continued mission success.

Fortunately, the technology we use is quite advanced. One of the most commonly used connection systems was designed in the 1920's, abandoned long ago by the original specifier. Our primary communication protocol - MIDI - that allows keyboard components to talk to each other is based on a serial hexadecimal language created in the late 70's. It has never been replaced.

There isn't even a MIDI 2.0. Most all keyboards and similar components using MIDI have a specific button or easily executed key command on the work surface labeled PANIC, used when the buffer overloads. The name and the fact that it even exists gives you all the info you need to know.

Once the system has been thoroughly tested, there is a burn in period. We then load the components into the specialized housings specified for the mission; it's often a tight fit with close tolerances. These housings and others are gathered together and become the payload, literally, in the transport vehicles. Many a manager have told many a promoter upon arrival, "We are not unloading the (expletive) truck unless you (expletive) pay us first!"

We operate in a universe in which stars explode, implode, collide, change their color (usually only the hair, but not always) increase in diameter, dim, die. Some of them exhibit behaviors that seem beyond the laws of physics, or at least beyond the law. Quantum mechanics apply; quasi-Shroedinger effects are commonly observed, in which someone is expected to be in two positions at once.

Surrounding these stars is a collection of lesser bodies that have been pulled into orbits around the stars. Planets, moons, objects; band, crew, poseurs - we each have our nomenclature. Nebulous clouds of gas are common, some of them inept. Inert, sorry. Bowing to your tradition of classical references, we call these egos, alternatively, "I am god!" or "Oh, my god..." (OMG's), from the Latin.

Solar flares do erupt, sometimes with local consequences. Dark matter exists, we work with it every day. Unlike you, we have regular contact and communication - more or less - with alien life forms, though our associates working on another project in this mission, the GTR (Guitar Tuning and Repair) techs, inform us that it is sometimes easier just to hand them their instrument and walk away. I trust their data.

The root of rocket is rock.

Therefore, in this newfound spirit of co-compatriosity, at the end of our mission, I would like to propose a test to be conducted in your massive centrifuge room, involving the keyboard rig I am 'project manager' of, and a ball of jute twine that has been soaking in a puddle of biodiesel in one of the bays of the tour bus for the lastyear. Maybe call it the Tour Twine Tensile Test or something catchy like that. Up to twenty five G's, huh? I'll spring for the stickers...

Thanks again and good luck with the LRO project. I will track your

project. Congrats.

Kurt Wolak
c/o Thrill Hill Production/Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band 2007

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tweeting from the NASA Earth Science Update

Hi all,

Here are some updates from NASA Earth Sciences, as tweeted earlier today:

NASA spending 1.5 billion on Earth Science in FY08

OSTM and OCO being launched this year

7 Earth Science missions in development

Dr. Alan Stern, Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate

NASA Earth Science: 14 Earth satellites in commission, 8 spacecraft to be launched in the next 5 years

Stern: Earth Science is one of NASA's "best kept secrets"

OSTM: Launch 6/16, GOES-O (weather satellite!) Launch 8/8; OCO Launch 12/15

Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO): First-time measurements of global carbon dioxide sources and sinks

Aquarius (Launch 2010): First time measurements of sea surface salinity from space

The A-Train is comprised of 5 satellites flying in close formation (including Aura!)

Synergy of spacecraft flying in close formation gives us more info than any one satellite flying alone

Six thematic areas of Earth science research: climate variability and change; atmospheric composition; weather; carbon cycle;

(cont): tectonic processes; water and energy cycles

NASA DC8 flying over boreal forest and examining impact of air pollution over arctic air masses - summer '08

NASA Earth science accomplishments 2007:

NASA observations have contributed to climate change projects (i.e.: IPCC Report)

QuickScat measured record decline in arctic sea ice cover

Area of sea ice lost: comparable to area of TX and CA combined

IceSAT: Arctic sea ice is thinning and shriking. Old ice is being replaced by newer, thinner sea ice

Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM): Polar mesospheric clouds are forming more frequently and at lower latitudes than ever before

Polar Mesospheric cloud change is result of CO2 in atmosphere, cooling in upper atmosphere

Satellites characterized aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Satellites imaged before and after changes in live vegetation wrt Katrina

NASA measures So Cal wildfires:

Aqua, EOS-1, and unmanned research aircraft got images of fires, showing smoke locations, fire hotspots, and near real-time data

Stay tuned: Specifics about Earth Science response to decadal survey. Once-per-month updates on NASA Earth Science programs and projects

OCO will help us understand the carbon cycle on scales of about 1,000 km, and understand non-anthropogenic background

Miles Brian (CNN): How does NASA plan to handle data gaps?

Stern: NASA satellites have proven to outlive their expectations by factors of 2 and 3. We have a balancing act btwn covering gaps

(cont): and new measurements

Miles Brian (CNN): Are we here because of a change in political climate?

Griffin: No. We are here because we do research, and we do Earth science research well, and we're proud of it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hello Mercury!!

The MESSENGER spacecraft will make its first flyby of Mercury today at 2:04:39 pm EST!! This image of Mercury was taken yesterday on January 13 when the spacecraft was at a distance of about 760,000 kilometers (470,000 miles) from Mercury. Mercury is about 4880 kilometers (about 3030 miles) in diameter, and the smallest feature visible in this image is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) across.

During the historic encounter today, extensive scientific data will be gathered. The Mercury Dual Imaging System cameras will acquire more than 1,200 images of Mercury, including images of portions of the surface never before viewed by a spacecraft. The Mercury Atmospheric and Surface Composition Spectrometer will observe Mercury's surface as well as its tenuous atmosphere. The Magnetometer will accurately measure Mercury's magnetic field, and the Energetic Particle and Plasma Spectrometer will characterize Mercury's space environment and interactions with the solar wind. The Mercury Laser Altimeter will sense surface topography along a narrow profile. The Gamma-Ray and Neutron Spectrometer and X-Ray Spectrometer will make the first measurements of Mercury’s surface elemental composition.

MESSENGER will begin to transmit the new data to Earth once all of the scientific measurements are completed, about 22 hours after the spacecraft's closest approach to Mercury. These flyby data will shed light on fundamental scientific questions related to the formation and evolution of the planet Mercury. As scientists analyze the data, the MESSENGER spacecraft will continue on its planned journey, which includes two more encounters of Mercury in October 2008 and September 2009, before entering an orbit around Mercury in March 2011.

Additional information and features from this first flyby will be available online at, so check back frequently. Following the flyby, be sure to check for the latest released images and science results!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Mercury Here We Come!!

This Monday, January 14, 2008, the MESSENGER spacecraft will make its first flyby of Mercury! Monday's flyby, which is taking place more than three decades after the last spacecraft visit of Mercury (Mariner 10), will take MESSENGER to about 200 kilometers above Mercury's surface. To learn more about the flyby, click here. The following movie features Sean C. Solomon, Principal Investigator for the MESSENGER mission.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy New Year!!

2008 will be a very exciting year for us with the MESSENGER flyby of Mercury in a couple weeks on Jan. 14 and the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) on Oct. 31!

To learn more about the Mercury flyby, including how you can celebrate the event with others if you live in the DC/Baltimore area, click

To read the recently released LRO fact sheet, click