Category: planets

Space is a global frontier. That’s why we partner with nations all around the world to further the advancement of science and to push the boundaries of human exploration. With international collaboration, we have sent space telescopes to observe distant galaxies, established a sustainable, orbiting laboratory 254 miles above our planet’s surface and more! As we look forward to the next giant leaps in space exploration with our Artemis lunar exploration program, we will continue to go forth with international partnerships!

Teamwork makes the dream work. Here are a few of our notable collaborations:

Artemis Program

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Our Artemis lunar exploration program will send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. Using innovative technologies and international partnerships, we will explore more of the lunar surface than ever before and establish sustainable missions by 2028.

During these missions, the Orion spacecraft will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities. The European Service Module, provided by the European Space Agency, will serve as the spacecraft’s powerhouse and supply it with electricity, propulsion, thermal control, air and water in space.

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The Gateway, a small spaceship that will orbit the Moon, will be a home base for astronauts to maintain frequent and sustainable crewed missions to the lunar surface. With the help of a coalition of nations, this new spaceship will be assembled in space and built within the next decade.

Gateway already has far-reaching international support, with 14 space agencies agreeing on its importance in expanding humanity’s presence on the Moon, Mars and deeper into the solar system.

International Space Station

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The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the most ambitious international collaborations ever attempted. Launched in 1998 and involving the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan and the participating countries of the European Space Agency — the ISS has been the epitome of global cooperation for the benefit of humankind. The largest space station ever constructed, the orbital laboratory continues to bring together international flight crews, globally distributed launches, operations, training, engineering and the world’s scientific research community.

Hubble Space Telescope 

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The Hubble Space Telescope, one of our greatest windows into worlds light-years away, was built with contributions from the European Space Agency (ESA).

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ESA provided the original Faint Object Camera and solar panels, and continues to provide science operations support for the telescope. 

Deep Space Network

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The Deep Space Network (DSN) is an international array of giant radio antennas that span the world, with stations in the United States, Australia and Spain. The three facilities are equidistant approximately one-third of the way around the world from one another – to permit constant communication with spacecraft as our planet rotates. The network supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and a few that orbit Earth. It also provides radar and radio astronomy observations that improve our understanding of the solar system and the larger universe!

Mars Missions 

Information gathered today by robots on Mars will help get humans to the Red Planet in the not-too-distant future. Many of our Martian rovers – both past, present and future – are the products of a coalition of science teams distributed around the globe. Here are a few notable ones:

Curiosity Mars Rover 

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  • France: ChemCam, the rover’s laser instrument that can analyze rocks from more than 20 feet away
  • Russia: DAN, which looks for subsurface water and water locked in minerals
  • Spain: REMS, the rover’s weather station

InSight Mars Lander

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  • France with contributions from Switzerland: SEIS, the first seismometer on the surface of another planet
  • Germany: HP3, the heatflow probe that will help us understand the interior structure of Mars
  • Spain: APSS, the lander’s weather station

Mars 2020 Rover

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  • Norway: RIMFAX, a ground-penetrating radar
  • France: SuperCam, the laser instrument for remote science
  • Spain: MEDA, the rover’s weather station

Space-Analog Astronaut Training

We partner with space agencies around the globe on space-analog missions. Analog missions are field tests in locations that have physical similarities to the extreme space environments. They take astronauts to space-like environments to prepare as international teams for near-term and future exploration to asteroids, Mars and the Moon.

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The European Space Agency hosts the Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills (CAVES) mission. The two week training prepares multicultural teams of astronauts to work safely and effectively in an environment where safety is critical. The mission is designed to foster skills such as communication, problem solving, decision-making and team dynamics.

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We host our own analog mission, underwater! The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) project sends international teams of astronauts, engineers and scientists to live in the world’s only undersea research station, Aquarius, for up to three weeks. Here, “aquanauts” as we call them, simulate living on a spacecraft and test spacewalk techniques for future space missions in hostile environments.

International Astronautical Congress 

So, whether we’re collaborating as a science team around the globe, or shoulder-to-shoulder on a spacewalk, we are committed to working together with international partners for the benefit of all humanity! 

If you’re interested in learning more about how the global space industry works together, check out our coverage of the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) happening this week in Washington, D.C. IAC is a yearly gathering in which all space players meet to talk about the advancements and progress in exploration.

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Our James Webb Space Telescope is an epic mission that will give us a window into the early universe, allowing us to see the time period during which the first stars and galaxies formed. Webb will not only change what we know, but also how we think about the night sky and our place in the cosmos. Want to learn more? Join two of our scientists as they talk about what the James Webb Telescope is, why it is being built and what it will help us learn about the universe…

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First, meet Dr. Amber Straughn. She grew up in a small farming town in Arkansas, where her fascination with astronomy began under beautifully dark, rural skies. After finishing a PhD in Physics, she came to NASA Goddard to study galaxies using data from our Hubble Space Telescope. In addition to research, Amber’s role with the Webb project’s science team involves working with Communications and Outreach activities. She is looking forward to using data from Webb in her research on galaxy formation and evolution.

We also talked with Dr. John Mather, the Senior Project Scientist for Webb, who leads our science team. He won a Nobel Prize in 2006 for confirming the Big Bang theory with extreme precision via a mission called the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission. John was the Principal Investigator (PI) of the Far IR Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) instrument on COBE.  He’s an expert on cosmology, and infrared astronomy and instrumentation. 

Now, let’s get to the science of Webb!

Dr. Amber Straughn: The James Webb Space Telescope at its core is designed to answer some of the biggest questions we have in astronomy today. And these are questions that go beyond just being science questions; they are questions that really get to the heart of who we are as human beings; questions like where do we come from? How did we get here? And, of course, the big one – are we alone?

To answer the biggest questions in astronomy today we really need a very big telescope. And the James Webb Space Telescope is the biggest telescope we’ve ever attempted to send into space. It sets us up with some really big engineering challenges.

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Dr. John Mather: One of the wonderful challenges about astronomy is that we have to imagine something so we can go look for it. But nature has a way of being even more creative than we are, so we have always been surprised by what we see in the sky. That’s why building a telescope has always been interesting. Every time we build a better one, we see something we never imagined was out there. That’s been going on for centuries. This is the next step in that great series, of bigger and better and more powerful telescopes that surely will surprise us in some way that I can’t tell you.

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It has never been done before, building a big telescope that will unfold in space. We knew we needed something that was bigger than the rocket to achieve the scientific discoveries that we wanted to make. We had to invent a new way to make the mirrors, a way to focus it out in outer space, several new kinds of infrared detectors, and we had to invent the big unfolding umbrella we call the sunshield.

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Amber: One of Webb’s goals is to detect the very first stars and galaxies that were born in the very early universe. This is a part of the universe that we haven’t seen at all yet. We don’t know what’s there, so the telescope in a sense is going to open up this brand-new part of the universe, the part of the universe that got everything started.

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John: The first stars and galaxies are really the big mystery for us. We don’t know how that happened. We don’t know when it happened. We don’t know what those stars were like. We have a pretty good idea that they were very much larger than the sun and that they would burn out in a tremendous burst of glory in just a few million years.

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Amber: We also want to watch how galaxies grow and change over time. We have questions like how galaxies merge, how black holes form and how gas inflows and outflows affect galaxy evolution. But we’re really missing a key piece of the puzzle, which is how galaxies got their start.

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John: Astronomy is one of the most observationally based sciences we’ve ever had. Everything we know about the sky has been a surprise. The ancients knew about the stars, but they didn’t know they were far away. They didn’t know they were like the Sun. Eventually we found that our own galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies and that the Universe is actually very old, but not infinitely old. So that was a big surprise too. Einstein thought, of course the Universe must have an infinite age, without a starting point. Well, he was wrong! Our intuition has just been wrong almost all the time. We’re pretty confident that we don’t know what we’re going to find.

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Amber: As an astronomer one of the most exciting things about working on a telescope like this is the prospect of what it will tell us that we haven’t even thought of yet. We have all these really detailed science questions that we’ll ask, that we know to ask, and that we’ll answer. And in a sense that is what science is all about… in answering the questions we come up with more questions. There’s this almost infinite supply of questions, of things that we have to learn. So that’s why we build telescopes to get to this fundamental part of who we are as human beings. We’re explorers, and we want to learn about what our Universe is like. 

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Webb will be the world’s premier space science observatory. It will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe – including our place in it. Webb is an international project we’re leading with our partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

To learn more about our James Webb Space Telescope, visit the website, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

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Did you ever wonder how we spots asteroids that may be getting too close to Earth for comfort? Wonder no more. Our Planetary Defense Coordination Office does just that. Thanks to a variety of ground and space based telescopes, we’re able to detect potentially hazardous objects so we can prepare for the unlikely threat against our planet. 

What is a near-Earth object?

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Near-Earth objects (NEOs) are asteroids and comets that orbit the Sun, but their orbits bring them into Earth’s neighborhood – within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit.

These objects are relatively unchanged remnant debris from the solar system’s formation some 4.6 billion years ago. Most of the rocky asteroids originally formed in the warmer inner solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, while comets, composed mostly of water ice with embedded dust particles, formed in the cold outer solar system.

Who searches for near-Earth objects?

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Our Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program finds, tracks and monitors near-Earth asteroids and comets. Astronomers supported by the program use telescopes to follow up the discoveries to make additional measurements, as do many observatories all over the world. The Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, based at our Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also uses these data to calculate high-precision orbits for all known near-Earth objects and predict future close approaches by them to Earth, as well as the potential for any future impacts.

How do we calculate the orbit of a near-Earth object?

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Scientists determine the orbit of an asteroid by comparing measurements of its position as it moves across the sky to the predictions of a computer model of its orbit around the Sun. The more observations that are used and the longer the period over which those observations are made, the more accurate the calculated orbit and the predictions that can be made from it.

How many near-Earth objects have been discovered so far?

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At the start of 2019, the number of discovered NEOs totaled more than 19,000, and it has since surpassed 20,000. An average of 30 new discoveries are added each week. More than 95 percent of these objects were discovered by NASA-funded surveys since 1998, when we initially established its NEO Observations Program and began tracking and cataloguing them.

Currently the risk of an asteroid striking Earth is exceedingly low, but we are constantly monitoring our cosmic neighborhood. Have more questions? Visit our Planetary Defense page to explore how we keep track of near-Earth objects. 

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

The first confirmation of a planet orbiting a star outside our solar system happened in 1995. We now know that these worlds – also known as exoplanets – are abundant. So far, we’ve confirmed more than 4000. Even though these planets are far, far away, we can still study them using ground-based and space-based telescopes.

Our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will study the atmospheres of the worlds in our solar system and those of exoplanets far beyond. Could any of these places support life? What Webb finds out about the chemical elements in these exoplanet atmospheres might help us learn the answer.

How do we know what’s in the atmosphere of an exoplanet?

Most known exoplanets have been discovered because they partially block the light of their suns. This celestial photo-bombing is called a transit.

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During a transit, some of the star’s light travels through the planet’s atmosphere and gets absorbed.

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The light that survives carries information about the planet across light-years of space, where it reaches our telescopes.

(However, the planet is VERY small relative to the star, and VERY far away, so it is still very difficult to detect, which is why we need a BIG telescope to be sure to capture this tiny bit of light.)

So how do we use a telescope to read light?

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Stars emit light at many wavelengths. Like a prism making a rainbow, we can separate light into its separate wavelengths. This is called a spectrum. Learn more about how telescopes break down light here

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Visible light appears to our eyes as the colors of the rainbow, but beyond visible light there are many wavelengths we cannot see.

Now back to the transiting planet…

As light is traveling through the planet’s atmosphere, some wavelengths get absorbed.

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Which wavelengths get absorbed depends on which molecules are in the planet’s atmosphere. For example, carbon monoxide molecules will capture different wavelengths than water vapor molecules.

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So, when we look at that planet in front of the star, some of the wavelengths of the starlight will be missing, depending on which molecules are in the atmosphere of the planet.

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Learning about the atmospheres of other worlds is how we identify those that could potentially support life…

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…bringing us another step closer to answering one of humanity’s oldest questions: Are we alone?

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Watch the full video where this method of hunting for distant planets is explained:

To learn more about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, visit the website, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Text and graphics credit Space Telescope Science Institute

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.  

Space telescopes like Hubble and our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope use light not only to create images, but can also break light down into individual colors (or wavelengths). Studying light this way can give us a lot of detail about the object that emitted that light.  For example, studying the components of the light from exoplanets can tell us about its atmosphere’s color, chemical makeup, and temperature. How does this work?

Remember the primary colors you learned about in elementary school?

Those colors are known as the pigment or subtractive colors. Every other color is some combination of the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue.

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Light also has its own primary colors, and they work in a similar way. These colors are known as additive or light colors.          

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TVs make use of light’s colors to create the pictures we see. Each pixel of a TV screen contains some amount of red, green and blue light. The amount of each light determines the overall color of the pixel. So, each color on the TV comes from a combination of the primary colors of light: red, green and blue.

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Space telescope images of celestial objects are also a combination of the colors of light.

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Every pixel that is collected can be broken down into its base colors. To learn even more, astronomers break the red, green and blue light down into even smaller sections called wavelengths.

This breakdown is called a spectrum.

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With the right technology, every pixel of light can also be measured as a spectrum.

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Images show us the big picture, while a spectrum reveals finer details.  Astronomers use spectra to learn things like what molecules are in planet atmospheres and distant galaxies.

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An Integral Field Unit, or IFU, is a special tool on the James Webb Space Telescope that captures images and spectra at the same time.

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The IFU creates a unique spectrum for each pixel of the image the telescope is capturing, providing scientists with an enormous amount of valuable, detailed data. So, with an IFU we can get an image, many spectra and a better understanding of our universe.

Watch the full video where this method of learning about planetary atmospheres is explained:

The James Webb Space Telescope is our upcoming infrared space observatory, which will launch in 2021. It will spy the first galaxies that formed in the universe and shed light on how galaxies evolve, how stars and planetary systems are born and tell us about potentially habitable planets around other stars.

To learn more about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, visit the website, or follow the mission on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Text and graphics credit: Space Telescope Science Institute

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.  

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered … what other kinds of planets are out there? Our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) just spent its first year bringing us a step closer to exploring the planets around the nearest and brightest stars in the southern sky and is now doing the same in the north.

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TESS has been looking for dips in the brightness of stars that could be a sign of something we call “transits.” A transit happens when a planet passes between its star and us. It’s like when a bug flies in front of a light bulb. You may not notice the tiny drop in brightness when the bug blocks some of the light from reaching your eyes, but a sensitive camera could. The cameras on TESS are designed to detect those tiny drops in starlight caused by a transiting planet many light-years away.

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In the last year TESS has found 24 planets and more than 900 new candidate planets. And TESS is only halfway through its goal of mapping over three-fourths of our skies, which means there’s plenty more to discover!

TESS has been looking for planets around the closest, brightest stars because they will be the best planets to explore more thoroughly with future missions. We can even see a few of these stars with our own eyes, which means we’ve been looking at these planets for millions of years and didn’t even know it.

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We spent thousands of years staring at our closest neighbor, the Moon, and asking questions: What is it like? Could we live there? What is it made of (perhaps cheese?). Of course, now we can travel to the Moon and explore it ourselves (turns out, not made of cheese).

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But for the worlds TESS is discovering, the commute to answer those questions would be killer. It took 35 years for Voyager 1 to cross into interstellar space (the region between stars), and it’s zipping along at over 38,000 mph! At that rate it would take more than a half-a-million years to reach the nearest stars and planets that TESS is discovering.

While exploring these distant worlds in person isn’t an option, we have other ways of learning what they are like. TESS can tell us where a planet is, its size and its overall temperature, but observatories on the ground and in space like our upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be able to learn even more — like whether or not a planet has an atmosphere and what it’s made of.

Here are a few of the worlds that our planet hunter discovered in the last year.

Earth-Sized Planet

The first Earth-sized planet discovered by TESS is about 90% the size of our home planet and orbits a star 53 light-years away. The planet is called HD 21749 c (what a mouthful!) and is actually the second planet TESS has discovered orbiting that star, which you can see in the southern constellation Reticulum.

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The planet may be Earth-sized, but it would not be a pleasant place to live. It’s very close to its star and could have a surface temperature of 800 degrees Fahrenheit, which would be like sitting inside a commercial pizza oven.

Water World?

The other planet discovered in that star system, HD 21749 b, is about three times Earth’s size and orbits the star every 36 days. It has the longest orbit of any planet within 100 light-years of our solar system detected with TESS so far.

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The planet is denser than Neptune, but isn’t made of rock. Scientists think it might be a water planet or have a totally new type of atmosphere. But because the planet isn’t ideal for follow-up study, for now we can only theorize what the planet is actually like. Could it be made of pudding? Maybe … but probably not.

Magma World

One of the first planets TESS discovered, called LHS 3844 b, is roughly Earth’s size, but is so close to its star that it orbits in just 11 hours. For reference, Mercury, which is more than two and a half times closer to the Sun than we are, completes an orbit in just under three months.

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Because the planet is so close to its star, the day side of the planet might get so hot that pools and oceans of magma form on its rocky surface, which would make for a rather unpleasant day at the beach.    

TESS’s Smallest Planet

The smallest planet TESS has discovered, called L 98-59 b, is between the size of Earth and Mars and orbits its star in a little over two days. Its star also hosts two other TESS-discovered worlds.

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Because the planet lies so close to its star, it gets 22 times the radiation we get here on Earth. Yikes! It is also not located in its star’s habitable zone, which means there probably isn’t any liquid water on the surface. Those two factors make it an unlikely place to find life, but scientists believe it will be a good candidate for follow-up studies by other telescopes.

Other Data

While TESS’s team is hunting for planets around close, bright stars, it’s also collecting information on all sorts of other things. From transits around dimmer, farther stars to other objects in our solar system and events outside our galaxy, data from TESS can help astronomers learn a lot more about the universe. Comets and black holes and supernovae, oh my!

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Interested in joining the hunt? TESS’s data are released online, so citizen scientists around the world can help us discover new worlds and better understand our universe.

Stay tuned for TESS’s next year of science as it monitors the stars that more than 6.5 billion of us in the northern hemisphere see every night.

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When NASA began operations on Oct. 1, 1958, we consisted mainly of the four laboratories of our predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Hot on the heels of NASA’s first day of business, we opened the Goddard Space Flight Center. Chartered May 1, 1959, and located in Greenbelt, Maryland, Goddard is home to one of the largest groups of scientists and engineers in the world. These people are building, testing and experimenting their way toward answering some of the universe’s most intriguing questions.

To celebrate 60 years of exploring, here are six ways Goddard shoots for the stars.

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For the last 60 years, we’ve kept a close eye on our home planet, watching its atmosphere, lands and ocean.

Goddard instruments were crucial in tracking the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica as it grew and eventually began to show signs of healing. Satellites and field campaigns track the changing height and extent of ice around the globe. Precipitation missions give us a global, near-real-time look at rain and snow everywhere on Earth. Researchers keep a record of the planet’s temperature, and Goddard supercomputer models consider how Earth will change with rising temperatures. From satellites in Earth’s orbit to field campaigns in the air and on the ground, Goddard is helping us understand our planet.

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We seek to answer the big questions about our universe: Are we alone? How does the universe work? How did we get here?

We’re piecing together the story of our cosmos, from now all the way back to its start 13.7 billion years ago. Goddard missions have contributed to our understanding of the big bang and have shown us nurseries where stars are born and what happens when galaxies collide. Our ongoing census of planets far beyond our own solar system (several thousand known and counting!) is helping us hone in on which ones might be potentially habitable.

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We study our dynamic Sun.

Our Sun is an active star, with occasional storms and a constant outflow of particles, radiation and magnetic fields that fill the solar system out far past the orbit of Neptune. Goddard scientists study the Sun and its activity with a host of satellites to understand how our star affects Earth, planets throughout the solar system and the nature of the very space our astronauts travel through.

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We explore the planets, moons and small objects in the solar system and beyond. 

Goddard instruments (well over 100 in total!) have visited every planet in the solar system and continue on to new frontiers. What we’ve learned about the history of our solar system helps us piece together the mysteries of life: How did life in our solar system form and evolve? Can we find life elsewhere?

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Over 60 years, our communications networks have enabled hundreds of NASA spacecraft to “phone home.”

Today, Goddard communications networks bring down 98 percent of our spacecraft data – nearly 30 terabytes per day! This includes not only science data, but also key information related to spacecraft operations and astronaut health. Goddard is also leading the way in creating cutting-edge solutions like laser communications that will enable exploration – faster, better, safer – for generations to come. Pew pew!

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Exploring the unknown often means we must create new ways of exploring, new ways of knowing what we’re “seeing.” 

Goddard’s technologists and engineers must often invent tools, mechanisms and sensors to return information about our universe that we may not have even known to look for when the center was first commissioned.

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Behind every discovery is an amazing team of people, pushing the boundaries of humanity’s knowledge. Here’s to the ones who ask questions, find answers and ask questions some more!

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When we talk about the enormity of the cosmos, it’s easy to
toss out big numbers – but far harder to wrap our minds around just how large,
how far and how numerous celestial bodies like exoplanets – planets beyond our
solar system – really are.

So. How big is our Milky Way Galaxy?

We use light-time to measure the vast distances of space.

It’s the distance that light travels in a specific period of
time. Also: LIGHT IS FAST, nothing travels faster than light.

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How far can light travel in one second? 186,000 miles. It
might look even faster in metric: 300,000 kilometers in one second. See? FAST.

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How far can light travel in one minute? 11,160,000 miles.
We’re moving now! Light could go around the Earth a bit more than 448 times in
one minute.

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Speaking of Earth, how long does it take light
from the Sun to reach our planet? 8.3 minutes. (It takes 43.2 minutes for
sunlight to reach Jupiter, about 484 million miles away.) Light is fast, but
the distances are VAST.

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In an hour, light can travel 671 million miles. We’re still
light-years from the nearest
exoplanet, by the way. Proxima Centauri b is 4.2 light-years away. So… how far
is a light-year? 5.8 TRILLION MILES.

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A trip at light speed to the very edge of our solar system –
the farthest reaches of the Oort Cloud, a collection of dormant comets way, WAY
out there – would take about 1.87 years.

Our galaxy contains 100 to 400 billion stars and is about
100,000 light-years across!

One of the most distant exoplanets known to us in the Milky
Way is Kepler-443b. Traveling at light speed, it would take 3,000 years to get
there. Or 28 billion years, going 60 mph. So, you know, far.

SPACE IS BIG.

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Read more here: go.nasa.gov/2FTyhgH

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Mars in a Box: How a Metal Chamber on Earth Helps Us do EXperiments on Mars

Inside this metal box, it’s punishingly cold. The air is unbreathable. The pressure is so low, you’d inflate like a balloon. This metal chamber is essentially Mars in a box — or a near-perfect replica of the Martian environment. This box allows scientists to practice chemistry experiments on Earth before programming NASA’s Curiosity rover to carry them out on Mars. In some cases, scientists use this chamber to duplicate experiments from Mars to better understand the results. This is what’s happening today.

The ladder is set so an engineer can climb to the top of the chamber to drop in a pinch of lab-made Martian rock. A team of scientists is trying to duplicate one of Curiosity’s first experiments to settle some open questions about the origin of certain organic compounds the rover found in Gale Crater on Mars. Today’s sample will be dropped for chemical analysis into a tiny lab inside the chamber known as SAM, which stands for Sample Analysis at Mars. Another SAM lab is on Mars, inside the belly of Curiosity. The SAM lab analyzes rock and soil samples in search of organic matter, which on Earth is usually associated with life. Mars-in-a-box is kept at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

This is Goddard engineer Ariel Siguelnitzky. He is showing how far he has to drop the sample, from the top of the test chamber to the sample collection cup, a small capsule about half an inch (1 centimeter) tall (pictured right below). On Mars, there are no engineers like Siguelnitzky, so Curiosity’s arm drops soil and rock powder through small funnels on its deck. In the photo, Siguelnitzky’s right hand is pointing to a model of the tiny lab, which is about the size of a microwave. SAM will heat the soil to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius) to extract the gases inside and reveal the chemical elements the soil is made of. It takes about 30 minutes for the oven to reach that super high temperature.

Each new sample is dropped into one of the white cups set into a carousel inside SAM. There are 74 tiny cups. Inside Curiosity’s SAM lab, the cups are made of quartz glass or metal. After a cup is filled, it’s lifted into an oven inside SAM for heating and analysis.

Amy McAdam, a NASA Goddard geochemist, hands Siguelnitzky the sample. Members of the SAM team made it in the lab using Earthly ingredients that duplicate Martian rock powder. The powder is wrapped in a nickel capsule (see photo below) to protect the sample cups so they can be reused many times. On Mars, there’s no nickel capsule around the sample, which means the sample cups there can’t be reused very much.

SAM needs as little as 45 milligrams of soil or rock powder to reveal the secrets locked in minerals and organic matter on the surface of Mars and in its atmosphere. That’s smaller than a baby aspirin!

Siguelnitzky has pressurized the chamber – raised the air pressure to match that of Earth – in order to open the hatch on top of the Mars box.

Now, he will carefully insert the sample into SAM through one of the two small openings below the hatch. They’re about 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) across, the same as on Curiosity. Siguelnitzky will use a special tool to carefully insert the sample capsule about two feet down to the sample cup in the carousel.

Sample drop.

NASA Goddard scientist Samuel Teinturier is reviewing the chemical data, shown in the graphs, coming in from SAM inside Mars-in-a-box. He’s looking to see if the lab-made rock powder shows similar chemical signals to those seen during an earlier experiment on Mars.

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Our latest space telescope,
Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in April. This
week, planet hunters worldwide received all the data from the first two months
of its planet search. This view, from four cameras on TESS, shows just one
region of Earth’s southern sky.

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The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captured
this strip of stars and galaxies in the southern sky during one 30-minute
period in August. Created by combining the view from all four of its cameras, TESS
images will be used to discover new exoplanets. Notable features in this swath
include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and a globular cluster called NGC
104. The brightest stars, Beta Gruis and R Doradus, saturated an entire column
of camera detector pixels on the satellite’s second and fourth cameras.

Credit: NASA/MIT/TESS

The data in the images from TESS will soon lead to discoveries of
planets beyond our solar system – exoplanets. (We’re at 3,848 so far!)

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But first, all that data (about 27 gigabytes a day) needs to be
processed. And where do space telescopes like TESS get their data cleaned up?
At the Star Wash, of course!

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TESS sends about 10 billion pixels of data to Earth
at a time. A supercomputer at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley processes the raw
data, turning those pixels into measures of a star’s brightness.

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And that brightness? THAT’S HOW WE FIND PLANETS! A dip in a star’s
brightness can reveal an orbiting exoplanet in transit.

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TESS will spend a year studying our southern sky, then will turn
and survey our northern sky for another year. Eventually, the space telescope
will observe 85 percent of Earth’s sky, including 200,000 of the brightest and
closest stars to Earth.

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