It is so small that you cannot see it on Google maps. It measures 25 by 45 meters (27 by 49 yards), about half the size of a football field. This barren bit of rock off the coast of Canada also has an unusual namesake: the Landsat 1 satellite. The small size is actually what made the island notable in 1973, when it was initially discovered. Well, that, and the polar bear trying to eat one of the surveyors.
Betty Fleming, a researcher with the Topographic Survey of Canada, was hunting for uncharted islands and rocks amidst data from the new Landsat 1 satellite. She was particularly interested in the new satellite’s ability to find small features. Working with the Canadian Hydrographic Service, Fleming scanned images of the Labrador coast, an area that was poorly charted. About 20 kilometers (12 miles) offshore, the satellite detected a tiny, rocky island. Surveyors were sent to verify the existence of the island and encountered a hungry polar bear on the island. The surveyor quickly retreated. Eventually, the island became known as “Landsat Island,” after the satellite that discovered it. Watch the video to learn more about Betty Fleming and how Landsat Island was discovered by satellite and ground surveyors.
For more details about Landsat Island, read the full stories here:
Since the 19th century, women have been making strides in areas like coding, computing, programming and space travel, despite the challenges they have faced. Sally Ride joined NASA in 1983 and five years later she became the first female American astronaut. Ride’s accomplishments paved the way for the dozens of other women who became astronauts, and the hundreds of thousands more who pursued careers in science and technology. Just last week, we celebrated our very first #AllWomanSpacewalk with astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir.
Here are just a couple of examples of pioneers who brought us to where we are today:
Computers played a role in major projects ranging from World War II aircraft testing to transonic and supersonic flight research and the early space program. Women working as computers at Langley found that the job offered both challenges and opportunities. With limited options for promotion, computers had to prove that women could successfully do the work and then seek out their own opportunities for advancement.
Revolutionizing X-ray Astronomy
Marjorie Townsend was blazing trails from a very young age. She started college at age 15 and became the first woman to earn an engineering degree from the George Washington University when she graduated in 1951. At NASA, she became the first female spacecraft project manager, overseeing the development and 1970 launch of the UHURU satellite. The first satellite dedicated to x-ray astronomy, UHURU detected, surveyed and mapped celestial X-ray sources and gamma-ray emissions.
Women of Apollo
NASA’s mission to land a human on the Moon for the very first time took hundreds of thousands workers. These are some of the stories of the women who made our recent #Apollo50th anniversary possible:
• Margaret Hamilton led a NASA team of software engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and helped develop the flight software for NASA’s Apollo missions. She also coined the term “software engineering.” Her team’s groundbreaking work was perfect; there were no software glitches or bugs during the crewed Apollo missions.
• JoAnn Morgan was the only woman working in Mission Control when the Apollo 11 mission launched. She later accomplished many NASA “firsts” for women: NASA winner of a Sloan Fellowship, division chief, senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center and director of Safety and Mission Assurance at the agency.
• Judy Sullivan, was the first female engineer in the agency’s Spacecraft Operations organization, was the lead engineer for health and safety for Apollo 11, and the only woman helping Neil Armstrong suit up for flight.
Author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book – and subsequent movie – Hidden Figures, highlighted African-American women who provided instrumental support to the Apollo program, all behind the scenes.
• An alumna of the Langley computing pool, Mary Jackson was hired as the agency’s first African-American female engineer in 1958. She specialized in boundary layer effects on aerospace vehicles at supersonic speeds.
• An extraordinarily gifted student, Katherine Johnson skipped several grades and attended high school at age 13 on the campus of a historically black college. Johnson calculated trajectories, launch windows and emergency backup return paths for many flights, including Apollo 11.
• Christine Darden served as a “computress” for eight years until she approached her supervisor to ask why men, with the same educational background as her (a master of science in applied mathematics), were being hired as engineers. Impressed by her skills, her supervisor transferred her to the engineering section, where she was one of few female aerospace engineers at NASA Langley during that time.
Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program
Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was the among dozens of women recruited in 1960 by Dr. William Randolph “Randy” Lovelace II to undergo the same physical testing regimen used to help select NASA’s first astronauts as part of his privately funded Woman in Space Program.
Ultimately, thirteen women passed the same physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed for NASA’s astronaut selection process. They were: Jerrie Cobb, Myrtle “K” Cagle, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Jean Hixson, Irene Leverton, Sarah Gorelick, Jane B. Hart, Rhea Hurrle, Jerri Sloan, Gene Nora Stumbough, and Bernice Trimble Steadman. Though they were never officially affiliated with NASA, the media gave these women the unofficial nicknames “Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees” and the “Mercury Thirteen.”
This material was adapted from a paper written by Shanessa Jackson (Stellar Solutions, Inc.), Dr. Patricia Knezek (NASA), Mrs. Denise Silimon-Hill (Stellar Solutions), and Ms. Alexandra Cross (Stellar Solutions) and submitted to the 2019 International Astronautical Congress (IAC). For more information about IAC and how you can get involved, click here.
From people and pets to pens and pencils,
everything gives off energy in the form of heat. We’ve got special instruments
that measure thermal wavelengths, so we can tell whether something is hot, cold
or in between. Hotter things emit more thermal energy; colder ones emit less.
We have special instruments in
space, zipping around Earth and measuring the hottest and coldest places on our
We can also measure much subtler changes in
heat – like when plants cool down as they take up water from the soil and
‘sweat’ it out into the air, in a process called evapotranspiration.
This lets us identify healthy,
growing crops around the world.
It’s almost launch day! On Monday, June 24, the launch window opens for the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Among the two dozen satellites on board are four NASA payloads whose data will help us improve satellite design and performance.
Our experts will be live talking about the launch and NASA’s missions starting this weekend.
🛰 Tune in on Sunday, June 23, at 12 p.m. EDT (9 a.m. PDT) for a live show diving into the technology behind our projects.
🚀 Watch coverage of the launch starting at 11 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. PDT) on Monday, June 24
Next week, we’re launching a new “green” fuel to space for the first time! The Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM)—which consists of a non-toxic liquid, compatible propulsion system and the small satellite it’s riding on—will demonstrate how our technology works so that future missions can take advantage of this safer, more efficient fuel alternative.
1) The Air Force Research Lab developed the “green” fuel.
The AFRL’s hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel/oxidizer blend—called AF-M315E—is actually peach in color. This liquid doesn’t require the kind of strict, handling protocols that conventional chemicals currently require. Think shirtsleeves instead of hazmat suits, which could reduce pre-launch ground processing time for a spacecraft from weeks to days!
Image Credit: Air Force Research Lab
2) It’s safer and more efficient.
The non-toxic fuel offers nearly 50% better performance when compared to today’s highly toxic chemical propellant, hydrazine. That’s equivalent to getting 50% more miles per gallon on your car. This means spacecraft can travel farther or operate for longer with less propellant in their fuel tanks.
3) The fuel can handle extreme temperatures.
Even on missions to extremely cold environments, such as the south pole of Mars – where temperatures can dip as low as -225 degrees Fahrenheit and carbon-dioxide ice “spiders” can form (see below) – AF-M315E won’t freeze, but rather just transforms into a glass transition phase. This means even though it turns into a solid, it won’t cause spacecraft components to stretch or expand, so the spacecraft only has to warm up the fuel when it needs it.
4) Industry is already lining up to use the technology.
Our commercial partners report that there is a lot of interest and potential for this tech. After we successfully prove how it works in space, small satellites to large spacecraft could benefit by using the green propellant system. It’d only be a matter of time before companies begin building the new systems for market.
5) GPIM required a team of talented engineers.
Engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Washington developed new, optimized hardware like thrusters, tanks, filters and valves to work with the green fuel. GPIM uses a set of thrusters that fire in different scenarios to test engine performance and reliability.
Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colorado designed and built the mini fridge-sized spacecraft bus and pieced it all together.
Before being ready for flight, GPIM components went through rigorous testing at multiple NASA centers including our Glenn Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center. The program team at Marshall Space Flight Center manages the mission. Once in orbit, researchers will work together to study how the fuel is performing as they manipulate the spacecraft. The demonstration mission will last about 13 months.
6) GPIM will hitch a ride on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will launch for a third time for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission targeted for June 24, 2019 at 11:30 p.m. EDT. With nearly two dozen other satellites from government, military and research institutions, GPIM will deploy within a few hours after launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch will be live-streamed here: https://www.nasa.gov/live
When we think about what makes a planet habitable, we’re often talking about water. With abundant water in liquid, gas (vapor) and solid (ice) form, Earth is a highly unusual planet. Almost 70% of our home planet’s surface is covered in water!
But about 97% of Earth’s water is salty – only a tiny amount is freshwater: the stuff humans, pets and plants need to survive.
Water on our planet is constantly moving, and not just geographically. Water shifts phases from ice to water to vapor and back, moving through the planet’s soils and skies as it goes.
That’s where our satellites come in.
Look at the Midwestern U.S. this spring, for example. Torrential rain oversaturated the soil and overflowed rivers, which caused severe flooding, seen by Landsat.
Our satellites also tracked a years-long drought in California. Between 2013 and 2014, much of the state turned brown, without visible green.
It’s not just rain. Where and when snow falls – and melts – is changing, too. The snow that falls and accumulates on the ground is called snowpack, which eventually melts and feeds rivers used for drinking water and crop irrigation. When the snow doesn’t fall, or melts too early, communities go without water and crops don’t get watered at the right time.
Even when water is available, it can become contaminated by blooms of phytoplankton, like cyanobacteria . Also known as blue-green algae, these organisms can make humans sick if they drink the water. Satellites can help track algae from space, looking for the brightly colored blooms against blue water.
Zooming even farther back, Earth’s blue water is visible from thousands of miles away. The water around us makes our planet habitable and makes our planet shine blue among the darkness of space.
Knowing where the water is, and where it’s going, helps people make better decisions about how to manage it. Earth’s climate is changing rapidly, and freshwater is moving as a result. Some places are getting drier and some are getting much, much wetter. By predicting droughts and floods and tracking blooms of algae, our view of freshwater around the globe helps people manage their water.
The next generation of lunar explorers – the Artemis generation – will establish a sustained presence on the Moon, making revolutionary discoveries, prospecting for resources and proving technologies key to future deep space exploration. To support these ambitions, our navigation engineers are developing an architecture that will provide accurate, robust location services all the way out to lunar orbit.
How? We’re teaming up with the U.S. Air Force to extend the use of GPS in space by developing advanced space receivers capable of tracking weak GPS signals far out in space.
Spacecraft near Earth have long relied on GPS signals for navigation data, just as users on the ground might use their phones to maneuver through a highway system. Below approximately 1,860 miles, spacecraft in low-Earth orbit can rely on GPS for near-instantaneous location data. This is an enormous benefit to these missions, allowing many satellites the autonomy to react and respond to unforeseen events without much hands-on oversight.
Beyond this altitude, navigation becomes more challenging. To reliably calculate their position, spacecraft must use signals from the global navigation satellite system (GNSS), the collection of international GPS-like satellite constellations. The region of space that can be serviced by these satellites is called the Space Service Volume, which extends from 1,860 miles to about 22,000 miles, or geosynchronous orbit.
In this area of service, missions don’t rely on GNSS signals in the same way one would on Earth or in low-Earth orbit. They orbit too high to “see” enough signals from GNSS satellites on their side of the globe, so they must rely on signals from GNSS satellite signals spilling over to the opposite side of the globe. This is because the Earth blocks the main signals of these satellites, so the spacecraft must “listen” for the fainter signals that extend out from the sides of their antennas, known as “side-lobes.”
Though 22,000 miles is considered the end of the Space Service Volume, that hasn’t stopped our engineers from reaching higher. In fact, our simulations prove that GNSS signals could even be used for reliable navigation in lunar orbit, far outside the Space Service Volume, over 200,000 miles from Earth. We’re even planning to use GNSS signals in the navigation architecture for the Gateway, an outpost in orbit around the Moon that will enable sustained lunar surface exploration.
It’s amazing that the same systems you might use to navigate the highways are putting us on the path forward to the Moon!
The quadruplet spacecraft of the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission have just returned from their first adventure into the solar wind — sailing through the most intense winds of their journey so far.
These spacecraft were designed to study Earth’s giant magnetic system, which shields our planet from the majority of the Sun’s constant outflow of material — what we call the solar wind.
Usually, the Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft — MMS for short — take their measurements from inside Earth’s protective magnetic environment, the magnetosphere. But in February and March, the MMS spacecraft ventured beyond this magnetic barrier to measure that solar wind directly — a feat that meant they had to change up how they fly in a whole new way.
Outside of Earth’s protective magnetic field, the spacecraft were completely immersed in the particles and magnetic fields of the solar wind. As they flew through the stream of material, the spacecraft traced out a wake behind each instrument, just like a boat in a river. To avoid measuring that wake, each spacecraft was tilted into the wind so the instruments could take clean measurements of the pristine solar wind, unaffected by the wake.
Within the magnetosphere, the MMS spacecraft fly in a pyramid-shaped formation that allows them to study magnetic fields in 3D. But to study the solar wind, the mission team aligned spacecraft in a straight line at oddly spaced intervals. This string-of-pearls formation gave MMS a better look at how much the solar wind varies over different scales.
Because the four spacecraft fly so close together, MMS relies on super-accurate navigation from GPS satellites. This venture into the solar wind took the spacecraft even farther from Earth than before, so MMS broke its own world record for highest-ever GPS fix. The spacecraft were over 116,000 miles above Earth — about halfway to the Moon — and still using GPS!
Now, just in time for the 1,000th orbit of their mission — which adds up to 163 million miles flown! — the spacecraft are back in Earth’s magnetosphere, flying in their usual formation to study fundamental processes within our planet’s magnetic field.
Perched on the outside of the International Space Station is Raven—a technology-filled module that helps NASA develop a relative navigation capability, which is essentially autopilot for spacecraft. Raven has been testing technologies to enable autonomous rendezvous in space, which means the ability to approach things in space without human involvement, even from the ground.
Developed by the Satellite Servicing Projects Division (SSPD), our three-eyed Raven has visible, infrared, and Lidar sensors and uses those “eyes” to image and track visiting spacecraft as they come and go from the space station. Although Raven is all-seeing, it only sees all in black and white. Color images do not offer an advantage in the case of Raven and Restore-L, which also utilize infrared and Lidar sensors.
The data from Raven’s sensors is sent to its processor, which autonomously sends commands that swivel Raven on its gimbal, or pointing system. When Raven turns using this system, it is able to track a vehicle. While these maneuvers take place, NASA operators evaluate the movements and make adjustments to perfect the relative navigation system technologies.
A few days ago, Raven completed its 21st observation of a spacecraft when it captured images of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus vehicle delivering science investigations and supplies as part of its 11th commercial resupply services mission, including another SSPD payload called the Robotic External Leak Locator.
While this shot of Dragon isn’t terribly impressive because of where the spacecraft docked on station, Raven has captured some truly great images when given the right viewing conditions.
From SpaceX Dragon resupply mission observations…
…to Cygnus supply vehicles.
Raven has observed six unique types of spacecraft.
It has also conducted a few observations not involving spacecraft, including the time it captured Hurricane Irma…
…or the time it captured station’s Dextre arm removing the Robotic Refueling Mission 3 payload, another mission developed by SSPD, from the Dragon spacecraft that delivered it to the orbiting laboratory.
Thus far, Raven has had a great, productive life aboard the station, but its work isn’t done yet! Whether it’s for Restore-L, which will robotically refuel a satellite, or getting humans to the Moon or Mars, the technologies Raven is demonstrating for a relative navigation system will support future NASA missions for decades to come.
This is no Westeros. On April 8, 2019, the Landsat 8 satellite acquired a scene of contrasts in Russia: a fire surrounded by ice.
Between chunks of frozen land and lakes in the Magadan Oblast district of Siberia, a fire burned and billowed smoke plumes that were visible from space.
Not much is known about the cause of the fire, east of the town of Evensk. Forest fires are common in this heavily forested region, and the season usually starts in April or May. Farmers also burn old crops to clear fields and replenish the soil with nutrients, also known as ‘slash and burn agriculture’; such fires occasionally burn out of control. Land cover maps, however, show that this fire region is mainly comprised of shrublands, not croplands.