By Michael Gregory National Aeronautics and Space Administration If you could choose something to look at, what would it be? Maybe to find out if a crab is about to nibble on your toe? Well, if you were really lucky, you might just see a beautiful coral reef. What is a reef? It’s basically a big collection of rocks sitting on the floor of the ocean. Coral reefs are living reefs covered by tiny animals called corals. They make their skeletons on the outside of their bodies, like a shell, and glue it to a rock — they stay in one place for their whole life! After corals die, their hard outer shells stay attached to the reef. After years and years of corals leaving their little skeletons behind, a reef gets bigger and bigger. A reef in Australia is so gigantic you can see it from space! We have learned that coral reefs are very sensitive to changes in temperature and light. They don’t like it when they can’t get enough clean water because the ocean has pollution in it. And sometimes the water they are living in gets too hot for them to survive. In 2016, NASA invented a way to study coral reefs from airplanes. Because reefs are underwater, it’s not very easy to see them clearly. That’s why NASA is going to use a special instrument (called an imaging spectrometer) to see how the reefs are doing. Coral reefs are usually really pretty. Some animals that live on reefs are fish, crabs, eels, sharks, sea turtles and starfish. A lot of the fish living on coral reefs are very brightly colored, which makes people want to go and look at them. Just be sure to bring a mask and snorkel so you can see and breathe under water! And visit the Space Place web site to learn more about Earth (http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/all-about-earth/)
Earthquakes can be serious, scary events. The ground shakes and rolls. Things can fly off shelves, and buildings can collapse. We can do a lot to prepare for earthquakes before they happen. But what can we do to prepare for what happens after them? When an earthquake occurs, it’s important to know the location, depth and overall strength of the earthquake. People use this information to respond to the earthquake and help people. To figure this out, we use sensors on the ground that measure vibrations. But with really big earthquakes, it gets harder to tell the size from the vibrations alone. The sensors also take a long time to send the information to scientists. Measuring earthquakes this way can take up to 25 minutes. That’s a lot of time when a big earthquake strikes and people need help. It’s great that we can measure the amount of shaking, but we need more information. What if we knew just how much the ground moved? Sometimes this is dramatic. Roads can be cut in half. Hillsides can rise or fall. But that can take a while to measure. Wouldn’t it be great if we could know right away? This sounds like a job for GPS. GPS stands for global positioning system. This is the technology that uses satellites and ground stations to locate things all over the planet. It’s the reason our phones can give us direction to the nearest pizza place or tell us the local weather. It knows where you are. GPS could also tell us how much an earthquake station moved during an earthquake. But the GPS that we have in our cars and smart phones can’t tell if something just moves a few inches or feet. It knows the location of things based on how long a satellite message takes to get to it, but things like clouds can slow down the message. This means that GPS by itself couldn’t tell if something moved just a little bit. But with some help from NASA, it can! NASA scientists along with researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography updated some GPS stations in Southern California. They now have sensors that monitor for earthquakes and collect GPS information, but they also take measurements of pressure, temperature and vibrations. The weather data helps make the GPS information more accurate. Now we can tell how much that GPS station has moved when an earthquake happens. Some of these GPS earthquake stations are being installed on top of important places like hospitals, bridges and skyscrapers. That way we know if they were moved or got damaged in the earthquake. And it all happens faster, too. After an earthquake, scientists could know in minutes exactly where the earthquake happened and how serious it was. That means they can get help to people who need it faster than ever before. The NASA scientists are also working on an early warning system for the west coast that will give you a 1-2 minute warning before you feel the earthquake shaking. That will give you time to take cover.
When Galileo Galilei first spotted Saturn in his telescope, he didn’t know what the shapes on either side of the planet were. He thought they might be two large moons. Today we know they’re beautiful rings. Saturn isn’t the only planet with rings. Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune have them too. But Saturn’s are the most visible and complex. Saturn’s rings are made mostly of pieces of water ice, with a little bit of dust and rocks. Some pieces are smaller than a grain of sand. Others are the size of a refrigerator. Saturn’s rings aren’t the same all over. There are brighter parts, darker parts and gaps in between them. Scientists have named the different parts of Saturn’s rings. They talk about the A ring, B ring, the Cassini Division between them, and the C ring. Scientists have been taking a closer look at Saturn’s B ring with data from NASA’s Cassini mission. This spacecraft took off in 1997 and has been exploring Saturn, its ring system, and its many moons. The B ring is the brightest and the most opaque (the least see-through) of Saturn’s rings. Until now, most people thought that the B ring was the densest — that it had the most ice and rock. This sounds like it makes sense based on our everyday experiences. If there’s more stuff in the ring, it’s harder to see though, and more light bounces off of it. This could explain why the B ring looks so thick and colorful. But new information shows this isn’t the whole picture. Scientists measured how much material was in the B ring at different spots. Where the B ring is brightest and where it’s not as bright, there’s the same amount of stuff. This is surprising. Why would they look different if they have the same amount of material? It means there is something else that determines how visible the rings are. It could be the sizes of the individual pieces in the rings. Scientists have lots of questions. Making measurements like these can teach us more about Saturn’s rings and how they came to be and how old the different rings are. Do you want to learn all about Saturn? Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov/all-about-saturn.
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration This past year, Earth has had unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. Believe it or not, this one thing can lead to a lot of interesting weather events all over the globe. We call it El Niño. It happens because of changes in winds and ocean circulation. We can’t predict an El Niño before it happens, but we can watch it closely when it does. This is one of the many things that scientists at NASA do: they keep an eye on Earth and track big events like El Niño. What exactly are they looking at? Because El Niño causes so many strange things to happen, scientists have plenty to watch. They use information from more than a dozen satellites orbiting Earth to keep track of what’s happening all over the planet. A big thing they’re looking at is temperature and how different it is from usual. This includes the temperature of the air and the temperature of bodies of water like the ocean. Temperature affects a lot of things, like the sea level height, humidity, clouds and storms — even big tropical storms like hurricanes and typhoons. The temperature of the ocean also affects all the things that live there, from small phytoplankton to fish and whales. NASA is keeping an eye on all of it. You might be wondering how NASA scientists could monitor living things in the ocean from space. After all, it is quite a distance away. But you can tell a lot by looking at the color of ocean waters. The colors can give us clues about living things in the water and how much food there is for them to eat. Phytoplankton, for instance, is bright green. We can see the green color in the ocean with Earth-orbiting satellites. During El Niño, the water is less green than usual because there is less phytoplankton. This is bad news for fish because that’s what they eat. Scientists also keep a close eye on rainfall all over the world during an El Niño year. In the western United States, El Niño brings lots of rain, but in places like Australia, El Niño brings less rain. Some places have floods while others experience drought. El Niño makes a lot of things change. Since El Niño changes the amount of rainfall, there is also a difference in the number of wildfires. During El Niño years, there are more wildfires, especially in Indonesia, Central America, and the southern and central Amazon. Some of NASA’s satellites observe wildfires and can even tell the difference between active flames and smoldering burns. These satellites can also monitor the affects of all the smoke and ash that go into the atmosphere during a big fire. El Niño causes some big changes and strange weather, but NASA scientists are watching closely. Every day they learn more about El Niño, the weather and our planet. Want to learn more about El Niño? Visit NASA Space Place, and then whip up some El Niño pudding! http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/el-nino.
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration Dark matter is very mysterious. It makes up 27 percent of our whole universe, but we know very little about it. We can’t measure it directly. It doesn’t give off light or absorb it. We do know it has gravity, though, because we can see its pull on things like stars and galaxies. Black holes are also very mysterious. A black hole is an area of such immense gravity that nothing — not even light — can escape from it. Black holes can form at the end of some stars’ lives. The gravity holding the star together overwhelms the pressure of the hot gas, and it collapses in on itself producing a magnificent explosion. Some of the material from the star escapes in the explosion, while the rest, many times the mass of our sun, falls into an infinitely small point but keeps the same amount of gravity. Scientists want to know more about dark matter and black holes, but they’re very hard to study. But in a strange twist, the best way to learn about dark matter and black holes may be watching both of them at the same time. Scientists think that dark matter is probably made of tiny things called weakly interacting massive particles, which some call WIMPS for short. They hardly ever run into each other in wide-open outer space. But things get crowded around the gravitational pull of a black hole. There, it’s much more likely that WIMPS could smash into each other. This is called annihilation. When it happens, WIMPS can release a burst of energy in the form of gamma rays. These are extremely high-energy rays, a thousand times more powerful than X-rays. Some of those gamma rays could escape the area around the black hole. They could make it all the way to us, and we could see them with our telescopes. Right now, this is an idea based on computer simulations and lots of math. But if it turns out we can watch black holes and dark matter interact, we could learn a lot about both of these mysterious astronomical oddities. Who would have ever thought that combining two mysteries could lead to new answers?This image shows the gamma-ray signal from the computer simulation of annihilations of dark matter particles. Lighter colors show higher energies. The highest-energy gamma rays come from the center of the crescent shape on the left, closest to the black hole’s equator and event horizon. The gamma rays with the greatest chances of escape are on the side of the black hole that spins toward us. Such lopsided emission is typical for a rotating black hole. Credit: NASA Goddard/Jeremy Schnittman
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration It’s not easy finding comets, especially when they’re near the bright, shining sun. Comets that approach the sun are called sungrazers. They can be as small as 30 to 150 feet in diameter. That’s the length of a limousine up to half a football field. Out in space, that’s a very small object to find. Also, some of these comets are only bright for a few hours before they go around the sun and burn up. So how do we spot these sungrazer comets? We find them with a satellite that watches the sun from space. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint project of the European Space Agency and NASA, was launched in 1995. SOHO’s main mission is to observe the sun and the space around it. It watches the sun for giant explosions called coronal mass ejections. It looks at the constant energy and particles the sun releases that we call the solar wind. It wasn’t built to find sungrazing comets, but it turned out to be really good at it. SOHO has discovered over 3,000 comets. In fact, it is the greatest comet finder of all time. Before SOHO, only about a dozen comets had been discovered from space. And only 900 had been discovered from the ground. SOHO didn’t find all these comets by itself. It gathered lots of data about what’s going on around the sun, but it took many people looking at the data to spot the sungrazers. The data is available for everyone to see, including citizen scientists. These are volunteers who help out with scientific research. Lots of people with all different backgrounds helped spot the comets. In all, 95 percent of SOHO’s comets were found by citizen scientists, including teachers, writers and 13-year-olds. We can learn a lot from comets. These chunks of ice and rock flying through space can teach us about how our solar system formed. When they get close to the sun, their gas tails light up and blow in the solar wind. Looking at their tails closely, we can learn more about the solar wind and what makes the tails shine so brightly. Want to make your own comet? Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov/comet-stick The dot in the cross hairs is a comet streaming toward the sun, as seen on Sept. 14, 2015, by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). This is the 3,000th comet discovered in SOHO data since the spacecraft launched in 1995. The comet was originally spotted by Worachate Boonplod of Samut Songkhram, Thailand, by looking through SOHO images.
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration Mars is a cold desert world about half the size of Earth. Because of rusty iron in the ground, Mars is sometimes called the “Red Planet.” Like Earth, Mars has seasons, volcanoes, canyons and weather. When Mars was a young planet, it may even have had oceans. Today, water on Mars exists as a solid in the polar ice caps and as ice crystals in thin clouds in the Martian atmosphere. Scientists have seen evidence that liquid water was on the surface a long time ago in Mars’ ancient history. However, liquid water on the surface of Mars today has been hard to find. Until now! Recently, NASA researchers announced they found evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. This is surprising because Mars is a very cold planet with a thin atmosphere. Since it’s so cold, most of the water there would be locked into place as ice. And since there is only a thin atmosphere, liquid water would evaporate very quickly. How did we find evidence of water there? Mars has several rovers on the surface and satellites orbiting around it. It was one of those satellites that led to this discovery. It’s called the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO for short. MRO has been studying the history of water on Mars since 2006. It takes close-up pictures of the surface. It analyzes rocks and minerals from orbit. It also monitors Mars’ weather. So how did it find water? In pictures of the Martian surface, researchers saw hills and crater walls with interesting streaks that changed over time. In the warm seasons, the streaks got longer and darker for a short time and then faded. Now researchers have evidence that those streaks contain water mixed with salty minerals. Salty water! This makes sense because adding salts to water lowers its freezing point. In other words, water can remain liquid even though it’s really, really cold. (This is why we put salt on icy roads: it makes the ice melt.) This all means that the streaks we can see on the hillsides and walls of craters are probably from salty water, which seeps down steep slopes just below the surface in warmer months. That turns the hillside a dark color, the same way dirt gets darker on Earth after it rains. This is an exciting discovery because it’s the first time we’ve seen evidence of liquid water on Mars. It leads to lots of new questions. How much water is there? How salty is it? Where does it come from? Could any small organisms live in this salty water?
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration When you think about NASA, you probably picture outer space, comets and galaxies. But there is also much to explore on our home planet Earth. We still have a lot to learn about the weather, the water cycle, Earth’s interior and our planet’s many ecosystems. NASA doesn’t only research big systems like the atmosphere; it also looks at much smaller things like individual trees. In fact, NASA is using new technology to help protect forests from pesky bugs. In the northeastern United States, millions of pine and ash trees are in danger because of two small insects, the southern pine beetle and the emerald ash borer. They burrow into trees and kill them. Technology from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will help the U.S. Forest Service understand how much these bugs are hurting trees. Then researchers can make decisions to save as many trees as possible. They use a machine called G-LiHT (pronounced gee-light). G-LiHT stands for “Goddard’s LiDAR, Hyperspectral and Thermal Imager.” It uses lasers and special cameras to see details in big ecosystems like forests. To get measurements, they put this device in an airplane and fly it over a large area. It sits on the floor over a window and looks down at the ground while it gathers information. This machine flew over forests in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island this summer. It collected information about forests and how these insects are affecting them. It helped build 3-D images of each tree in the forest so scientists have detailed maps. G-LiHT can see slight changes in the colors of leaves, which can show if trees are sick. This technology can even measure how much heat is coming off each tree. This is important since trees get a little warmer when insects damage them. These insects are killing trees quickly, so researchers need to work fast. G-LiHT is great because it gathers data on large forests rapidly. Making detailed maps of forests without machines like G-LiHT takes years. The more information we have now, the better we can save our trees from pests like the southern pine beetle and the emerald ash borer. After all, healthy forests are important for a healthy planet.
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration Since it’s always nice to make new friends, NASA is on the lookout for exoplanets. These are planets outside our solar system. They orbit a faraway star or float freely between stars. We’re especially curious about planets similar to Earth. In our vast universe, with countless galaxies, stars and planets, are there other planets like our own? Do they have living things we could never imagine? Are there other intelligent living things that are looking for us as we are looking for them? We don’t know! But we’d sure like to find out. The Kepler mission could possibly find such an exoplanet someday. The Kepler spacecraft orbits our sun just like Earth does. It scans the starry skies for faraway planets. It looks for distant stars that decrease in brightness as planets pass in front of them. So far Kepler has found 4,696 possible planets. Of those, 1,030 are definitely planets. Some of them are enormous gas giants like Jupiter, and some of them are small rocky planets like Earth. In July of this year, Kepler made a really amazing discovery. It found a nearly Earth-sized planet orbiting a nearly sun-like star in the habitable zone. That’s the sweet spot in a solar system. The habitable zone is the distance from a star where a planet might be the right temperature to have living things. Earth sits in the habitable zone of our own star, the sun. This newly discovered planet is named Kepler-452b It’s named after the star it orbits, which we call Kepler-452. Planet Kepler-452b is about one and a half times bigger than Earth, and it’s probably rocky like Earth. One year on Kepler-452b lasts 385 days, just a little bit longer than a year here on Earth. The star it orbits is bigger, brighter and older than our sun is. That means the planet is older too. Could there be life there? It’s hard to say. Kepler-452b is 1,400 light-years away. That means it takes light, which travels staggeringly fast, 1,400 years to get there. It also means that any communications between the planets would take 1,400 years to be received. So we won’t be sending any text messages to Kepler-452b just yet. But we’ll be watching from afar. This artist’s concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter.
By Katie McKissick National Aeronautics and Space Administration It’s over three billion miles away from Earth. We’ve only known about it since 1930. Pluto is an icy rock about a fifth the size of Earth. We called it a planet until 2006, but now we say it’s a dwarf planet. Scientists decided that it’s not a planet like Venus or Jupiter because it’s just one of many objects in the Kuiper Belt. That’s a ring of icy rocks on the edge of our solar system. But just because it’s not quite a planet like Venus and Jupiter, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to learn more about it. It’s so far away that it’s hard to see with even the most powerful telescopes. To get a better look, we sent a small spacecraft named New Horizons to visit Pluto. It left Earth on January 19, 2006. New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched. It left Earth travelling 31,000 miles per hour. That’s really fast. But because Pluto is so far away, it still took nine and half years to make it there. It flew right by Pluto on July 14, 2015. For 22 hours, it took lots of pictures and measurements of this icy world. While it collected information, we couldn’t talk to the spacecraft. New Horizons has a radio antenna, cameras and other tools. It uses the antenna to send messages to Earth. But New Horizons couldn’t point its cameras at Pluto and keep its antenna pointed toward Earth. This meant it couldn’t photograph Pluto and send messages to Earth at the same time. Scientists chose to get as many pictures of Pluto as possible, even if that meant we couldn’t get messages from New Horizons for a while. After the flyby, the mission team reconnected with the New Horizons spacecraft. They wanted to make sure everything went as planned. New Horizons sent a message to Earth saying it was OK. Because the spacecraft was so far away, the message took 4 hours and 25 minutes to reach us. When we heard from New Horizons on July 14, it was just past 9 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Everyone was overjoyed. We sent a probe to Pluto, we took pictures and the spacecraft worked just right. For months to come, New Horizons will keep sending back the information it collected near Pluto. It takes a long time to get data from so far away. We’ll learn about Pluto’s surface, temperature, atmosphere and moons—especially its largest moon, Charon. That’s not bad for a spacecraft the size of a baby grand piano!
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