Here are 5 ways our tech improves life here on Earth…
1. Eyes in the Sky Spot Fires on the Ground
Our Earth observing satellites enable conservation groups to spot and monitor fires across vast rainforests, helping them protect our planet on Earth Day and every day.
2. Helping Tractors Drive Themselves
There has been a lot of talk about self-driving cars, but farmers have already been making good use of self-driving tractors for more than a decade – due in part to a partnership between John Deere and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Growing food sustainably requires smart technology – our GPS correction algorithms help self-driving tractors steer with precision, cutting down on water and fertilizer waste.
3. Turning Smartphones into Satellites
On Earth Day (and every day), we get nonstop “Earth selfies” thanks to Planet Labs’ small satellites, inspired by smartphones and created by a team at our Ames Research Center. The high res imagery helps conservation efforts worldwide.
4. Early Flood Warnings
Monsoons, perhaps the least understood and most erratic weather pattern in the United States, bring rain vital to agriculture and ecosystems, but also threaten lives and property. Severe flash-flooding is common. Roads are washed out. Miles away from the cloudburst, dry gulches become raging torrents in seconds. The storms are often accompanied by driving winds, hail and barrages of lightning.
Around the world, agriculture is by far the biggest user of freshwater. Thanks in part to infrared imagery from Landsat, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), we can now map, in real time, how much water a field is using, helping conserve that precious resource.
We use the vantage point of space to understand and explore our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. Our observations of Earth’s complex natural environment are critical to understanding how our planet’s natural resources and climate are changing now and could change in the future.
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11
Voyager famously captured two unique views of our homeworld from afar. One image, taken in 1977 from a distance of 7.3 million miles (11.7 million kilometers) (above), showed the full Earth and full Moon in a single frame for the first time in history. The second (below), taken in 1990 as part of a “family portrait of our solar system from 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers), shows Earth as a tiny blue speck in a ray of sunlight.” This is the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image immortalized by Carl Sagan.
“This was our willingness to see the Earth as a one-pixel object in a far greater cosmos,” Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan said of the image. “It’s that humility that science gives us. That weans us from our childhood need to be the center of things. And Voyager gave us that image of the Earth that is so heart tugging because you can’t look at that image and not think of how fragile, how fragile our world is. How much we have in common with everyone with whom we share it; our relationship, our relatedness, to everyone on this tiny pixel.“
As part of an engineering test, our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured this image of Earth and the Moon in January 2018 from a distance of 39.5 million miles (63.6 million kilometers). When the camera acquired the image, the spacecraft was moving away from our home planet at a speed of 19,000 miles per hour (8.5 kilometers per second). Earth is the largest, brightest spot in the center of the image, with the smaller, dimmer Moon appearing to the right. Several constellations are also visible in the surrounding space.
Eight days after its final encounter with Earth—the second of two gravitational assists from Earth that helped boost the spacecraft to Jupiter—the Galileo spacecraft looked back and captured this remarkable view of our planet and its Moon. The image was taken from a distance of about 3.9 million miles (6.2 million kilometers).
A Slice of Life
Earth from about 393,000 miles (633,000 kilometers) away, as seen by the European Space Agency’s comet-bound Rosetta spacecraft during its third and final swingby of our home planet in 2009.
We pioneer and supports an amazing range of advanced technologies and tools to help scientists and environmental specialists better understand and protect our home planet – from space lasers to virtual reality, small satellites and smartphone apps.
To celebrate Earth Day 2018, April 22, we are highlighting many of these innovative technologies and the amazing applications behind them.
Once it launches, TESS will look for new planets that orbit bright stars relatively close to Earth. We’re expecting to find giant planets, like Jupiter, but we’re also predicting we’ll find Earth-sized planets. Most of those planets will be within 300 light-years of Earth, which will make follow-up studies easier for other observatories.
TESS will find these new exoplanets by looking for their transits. A transit is a temporary dip in a star’s brightness that happens with predictable timing when a planet crosses between us and the star. The information we get from transits can tell us about the size of the planet relative to the size of its star. We’ve found nearly 3,000 planets using the transit method, many with our Kepler space telescope. That’s over 75% of all the exoplanets we’ve found so far!
TESS will look at nearly the entire sky (about 85%) over two years. The mission divides the sky into 26 sectors. TESS will look at 13 of them in the southern sky during its first year before scanning the northern sky the year after.
What makes TESS different from the other planet-hunting missions that have come before it? The Kepler mission (yellow) looked continually at one small patch of sky, spotting dim stars and their planets that are between 300 and 3,000 light-years away. TESS (blue) will look at almost the whole sky in sections, finding bright stars and their planets that are between 30 and 300 light-years away.
TESS will also have a brand new kind of orbit (visualized below). Once it reaches its final trajectory, TESS will finish one pass around Earth every 13.7 days (blue), which is half the time it takes for the Moon (gray) to orbit. This position maximizes the amount of time TESS can stare at each sector, and the satellite will transmit its data back to us each time its orbit takes it closest to Earth (orange).
Kepler’s goal was to figure out how common Earth-size planets might be. TESS’s mission is to find exoplanets around bright, nearby stars so future missions, like our James Webb Space Telescope, and ground-based observatories can learn what they’re made of and potentially even study their atmospheres. TESS will provide a catalog of thousands of new subjects for us to learn about and explore.
Sunday, April 15 11 a.m. EDT – NASA Social Mission Overview
Join mission experts to learn more about TESS, how it will search for worlds beyond our solar system and what scientists hope to find! Have questions? Use #askNASA to have them answered live during the broadcast.
Our lunar orbiter, also known as LRO, has been collecting data on lunar topography, temperature, resources, solar radiation, and geology since it launched nine years ago. Our latest collection of this data is now in 4K resolution. This updated “Tour of the Moon” takes you on a virtual tour of our nearest neighbor in space, with new science updates from the vastly expanded data trove.
First stop, Orientale Basin located on the rim of the western nearside. It’s about the size of Texas and is the best-preserved impact structure on the Moon. Topography data from LRO combined with gravity measurements from our twin GRAIL spacecraft reveal the structure below the surface and help us understand the geologic consequences of large impacts.
South-Pole and Shackleton Crater
Unlike Earth, the Moon’s axis is barely tilted relative to the Sun. This means that there are craters at the poles where the sunlight never reaches, called permanently shadowed regions. As a result, the Moon’s South Pole has some of the coldest measured places in the solar system. How cold? -410 degrees F.
Because these craters are so cold and dark, water that happens to find its way into them never has the opportunity to evaporate. Several of the instruments on LRO have found evidence of water ice, which you can see in the highlighted spots in this visualization.
South-Pole Aitken Basin
South Pole-Aitken Basin is the Moon’s largest, deepest and oldest observed impact structure. Its diameter is about 2,200 km or 1,367 miles across and takes up ¼ of the Moon! If there was a flat, straight road and you were driving 60 mph, it would take you about 22 hours to drive across. And the basin is so deep that nearly two Mount Everests stacked on each other would fit from the bottom of the basin to the rim. South-Pole Aitken Basin is a top choice for a landing site on the far side of the Moon.
Now let’s go to the near side. Tycho Crater is 100 million years young. Yes, that’s young in geologic time. The central peak of the impact crater likely formed from material that rebounded back up after being compressed in the impact, almost like a spring. Check out that boulder on top. It looks small in this image, but it could fill a baseball stadium.
Also prominent on the nearside is the Aristarchus Plateau. It features a crater so bright that you could see it with your naked eye from Earth! The Aristarchus Plateau is particularly interesting to our scientists because it reveals much of the Moon’s volcanic history. The region is covered in rocks from volcanic eruptions and the large river-like structure is actually a channel made from a long-ago lava flow.
Apollo 17 Landing Site
As much as we study the Moon looking for sites to visit, we also look back at places we’ve already been. This is because the new data that LRO is gathering helps us reinterpret the geology of familiar places, giving scientists a better understanding of the sequence of events in early lunar history.
Here, we descend to the Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow valley, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon. The LRO camera is even able to capture a view of the bottom half of the Apollo 17 Lunar Lander, which still sits on the surface, as well as the rover vehicle. These images help preserve our accomplishment of human exploration on the Moon’s surface.
Finally, we reach the North Pole. Like the South Pole, there are areas that are in permanent shadow and others that bask in nearly perpetual light. LRO scientists have taken detailed brightness and terrain measurements of the North Pole in order to model these areas of sunlight and shadow through time. Sunlit peaks and crater rims here may be ideal locations for generating solar power for future expeditions to the Moon.
LRO was designed as a one-year mission. Now in its ninth year, the spacecraft and the data emphasize the power of long-term data collection. Thanks to its many orbits around the Moon, we have been able to expand on lunar science from the Apollo missions while paving the way for future lunar exploration. And as the mission continues to gather data, it will provide us with many more opportunities to take a tour of our Moon.
SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP aircraft with a 100-inch telescope used to study the solar system and beyond by observing infrared light that can’t reach Earth’s surface.
What is infrared light? It’s light we cannot see with our eyes that is just beyond the red portion of visible light we see in a rainbow. It can be used to change your TV channels, which is how remote controls work, and it can tell us how hot things are.
Everything emits infrared radiation, even really cold objects like ice and newly forming stars! We use infrared light to study the life cycle of stars, the area around black holes, and to analyze the chemical fingerprints of complex molecules in space and in the atmospheres of other planets – including Pluto and Mars.
Above, is the highest-resolution image of the ring of dust and clouds around the back hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The bright Y-shaped feature is believed to be material falling from the ring into the black hole – which is located where the arms of the Y intersect.
The magnetic field in the galaxy M82 (pictured above) aligns with the dramatic flow of material driven by a burst of star formation. This is helping us learn how star formation shapes magnetic fields of an entire galaxy.
A nearby planetary system around the star Epsilon Eridani, the location of the fictional Babylon 5 space station, is similar to our own: it’s the closest known planetary system around a star like our sun and it also has an asteroid belt adjacent to the orbit of its largest, Jupiter-sized planet.
Observations of a supernova that exploded 10,000 years ago, that revealed it contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earth-sized planets!
A gluttonous star that has eaten the equivalent of 18 Jupiters in the last 80 years, which may change the theory of how stars and planets form.
Molecules like those in your burnt breakfast toast may offer clues to the building blocks of life. Scientists hypothesize that the growth of complex organic molecules like these is one of the steps leading to the emergence of life.
This map of carbon molecules in Orion’s Horsehead nebula (overlaid on an image of the nebula from the Palomar Sky Survey) is helping us understand how the earliest generations of stars formed. Our instruments on SOFIA use 14 detectors simultaneously, letting us make this map faster than ever before!
Pinpointing the location of water vapor in a newly forming star with groundbreaking precision. This is expanding our understanding of the distribution of water in the universe and its eventual incorporation into planets. The water vapor data from SOFIA is shown above laid over an image from the Gemini Observatory.
We captured the chemical fingerprints that revealed celestial clouds collapsing to form young stars like our sun. It’s very rare to directly observe this collapse in motion because it happens so quickly. One of the places where the collapse was observed is shown in this image from The Two Micron All Sky Survey.
A flash of lightning. A roll of thunder. These are normal stormy sights and sounds. But sometimes, up above the clouds, stranger things happen. Our Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has spotted bursts of gamma rays – some of the highest-energy forms of light in the universe – coming from thunderstorms. Gamma rays are usually found coming from objects with crazy extreme physics like neutron stars and black holes.
So why is Fermi seeing them come from thunderstorms?
Thunderstorms form when warm, damp air near the ground starts to rise and encounters colder air. As the warm air rises, moisture condenses into water droplets. The upward-moving water droplets bump into downward-moving ice crystals, stripping off electrons and creating a static charge in the cloud.
The top of the storm becomes positively charged, and the bottom becomes negatively charged, like two ends of a battery. Eventually the opposite charges build enough to overcome the insulating properties of the surrounding air – and zap! You get lightning.
When those electrons run into air molecules, they emit a terrestrial gamma-ray flash, which means that thunderstorms are creating some of the highest energy forms of light in the universe. But that’s not all – thunderstorms can also produce antimatter! Yep, you read that correctly! Sometimes, a gamma ray will run into an atom and produce an electron and a positron, which is an electron’s antimatter opposite!
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope can spot terrestrial gamma-ray flashes within 500 miles of the location directly below the spacecraft. It does this using an instrument called the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor which is primarily used to watch for spectacular flashes of gamma rays coming from the universe.
There are an estimated 1,800 thunderstorms occurring on Earth at any given moment. Over the 10 years that Fermi has been in space, it has spotted about 5,000 terrestrial gamma-ray flashes. But scientists estimate that there are 1,000 of these flashes every day – we’re just seeing the ones that are within 500 miles of Fermi’s regular orbits, which don’t cover the U.S. or Europe.
The map above shows all the flashes Fermi has seen since 2008. (Notice there’s a blob missing over the lower part of South America. That’s the South Atlantic Anomaly, a portion of the sky where radiation affects spacecraft and causes data glitches.)
Fermi has also spotted terrestrial gamma-ray flashes coming from individual tropical weather systems. The most productive system we’ve seen was Tropical Storm Julio in 2014, which later became a hurricane. It produced four flashes in just 100 minutes!
This year, we will launch two satellite missions that will increase our understanding of Earth’s frozen reaches. Snow, ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and permafrost, known as the cryosphere, act as Earth’s thermostat and deep freeze, regulating temperatures by reflecting heat from the Sun and storing most of our fresh water.
2. GRACE-FO: Building on a Legacy and Forging Ahead
The next Earth science satellites set to launch are twins! The identical satellites of the GRACE Follow-On mission will build on the legacy of their predecessor GRACE by also tracking the ever-changing movement of water around our planet, including Earth’s frozen regions. GRACE-FO, a partnership between us and the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ), will provide critical information about how the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are changing. GRACE-FO, working together, will measure the distance between the two satellites to within 1 micron (much less than the width of a human hair) to determine the mass below.
Greenland has been losing about 280 gigatons of ice per year on average, and Antarctica has lost almost 120 gigatons a year with indications that both melt rates are increasing. A single gigaton of water would fill about 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools; each gigaton represents a billion tons of water.
3. ICESat-2: 10,000 Laser Pulses a Second
In September, we will launch ICESat-2, which uses a laser instrument to precisely measure the changing elevation of ice around the world, allowing scientists to see whether ice sheets and glaciers are accumulating snow and ice or getting thinner over time. ICESat-2 will also make critical measurements of the thickness of sea ice from space. Its laser instrument sends 10,000 pulses per second to the surface and will measure the photons’ return trip to satellite. The trip from ICESat-2 to Earth and back takes about 3.3 milliseconds.
4. Seeing Less Sea Ice
Summertime sea ice in the Arctic Ocean now routinely covers about 40% less area than it did in the late 1970s, when continuous satellite observations began. This kind of significant change could increase the rate of warming already in progress and affect global weather patterns.
5. The Snow We Drink
In the western United States, 1 in 6 people rely on snowpack for water. Our field campaigns such as the Airborne Snow Observatory and SnowEx seek to better understand how much water is held in Earth’s snow cover, and how we could ultimately measure this comprehensively from space.
6. Hidden in the Ground
Permafrost – permanently frozen ground in the Arctic that contains stores of heat-trapping gases such as methane and carbon dioxide – is thawing at faster rates than previously observed. Recent studies suggest that within three to four decades, this thawing could be releasing enough greenhouse gases to make Arctic permafrost a net source of carbon dioxide rather than a sink. Through airborne and field research on missions such as CARVE and ABoVE – the latter of which will put scientists back in the field in Alaska and Canada this summer – our scientists are trying to improve measurements of this trend in order to better predict global impact.
7. Breaking Records Over Cracking Ice
Last year was a record-breaking one for Operation IceBridge, our aerial survey of polar ice. For the first time in its nine-year history, the mission carried out seven field campaigns in the Arctic and Antarctic in a single year. In total, the IceBridge scientists and instruments flew over 214,000 miles, the equivalent of orbiting the Earth 8.6 times at the equator.
On March 22, we completed the first IceBridge flight of its spring Arctic campaign with a survey of sea ice north of Greenland. This year marks the 10th Arctic spring campaign for IceBridge. The flights continue until April 27 extending the mission’s decade-long mapping of the fastest-changing areas of the Greenland Ice Sheet and measuring sea ice thickness across the western Arctic basin.
Researchers were back in the field this month in Greenland with our Oceans Melting Greenland survey. The airborne and ship-based mission studies the ocean’s role in melting Greenland’s ice. Researchers examine temperatures, salinity and other properties of North Atlantic waters along the more than 27,000 miles (44,000 km) of jagged coastline.
9. DIY Glacier Modeling
Computer models are critical tools for understanding the future of a changing planet, including melting ice and rising seas. Our new sea level simulator lets you bury Alaska’s Columbia glacier in snow, and, year by year, watch how it responds. Or you can melt the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and trace rising seas as they inundate the Florida coast.
10. Ice Beyond Earth
Ice is common in our solar system. From ice packed into comets that cruise the solar system to polar ice caps on Mars to Europa and Enceladus-the icy ocean moons of Jupiter and Saturn-water ice is a crucial ingredient in the search for life was we know it beyond Earth.
Read the full version of this week’s 10 Things to Know HERE.
Discover how a team of our scientists has uncovered evidence that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is growing taller as it gets smaller.
Though once big enough to swallow three Earths with room to spare, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot has been shrinking for a century and a half. Nobody is sure how long the storm will continue to contract or whether it will disappear altogether.
A new study suggests that it hasn’t all been downhill, though. The storm seems to have increased in area at least once along the way, and it’s growing taller as it gets smaller.
Observations of Jupiter date back centuries, but the first confirmed sighting of the Great Red Spot was in 1831. But until then, researchers aren’t certain whether earlier observers who saw a red spot on Jupiter were looking at the same storm.
Amy Simon, an expert in planetary atmospheres at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and her team traced the evolution of the Great Red Spot, analyzing its size, shape, color and drift rate. They also looked at the storm’s internal wind speeds, when that information was available from spacecraft.
This new study confirms that the storm has been decreasing in diameter overall since 1878 and is now big enough to accommodate just over one Earth at this point. Then again, the historical record indicates the area of the spot grew temporarily in the 1920s. Scientists aren’t sure why it grew for a bit.
Because the storm has been contracting, the researchers expected to find the already-powerful internal winds becoming even stronger, like an ice skater who spins faster as she pulls in her arms.
But that’s not what is happening. Instead of spinning faster, the storm appears to be forced to stretch up. It’s almost like clay being shaped on a potter’s wheel. As the wheel spins, an artist can transform a short, round lump into a tall, thin vase by pushing inward with his hands. The smaller he makes the base, the taller the vessel will grow.
The Great Red Spot’s color has been deepening, too, becoming is a more intense orange color since 2014. Researchers aren’t sure why that’s happening, but it’s possible that the chemicals coloring the storm are being carried higher into the atmosphere as the spot stretches up. At higher altitudes, the chemicals would be subjected to more UV radiation and would take on a deeper color.
In some ways, the mystery of the Great Red Spot only seems to deepen as the iconic storm gets smaller. Researchers don’t know whether the spot will shrink a bit more and then stabilize, or break apart completely.
Our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will scan the skies to look for planets beyond our solar system—known as exoplanets—is now in Florida to begin preparations for launch in April. Below, 10 Things to know about the many, many unknown planets out there awaiting our discovery.
We call planets in our solar system, well, planets, but the many planets we’re starting to discover outside of our solar system are called exoplanets. Basically, they’re planets that orbit another star.
2—All eyes on TRAPPIST-1.
Remember the major 2016 announcement that we had discovered seven planets 40 light-years away, orbiting a star called TRAPPIST-1? Those are all exoplanets. (Here’s a refresher.)
3—Add 95 new ones to that.
Just last month, our Kepler telescope discovered 95 new exoplanets beyond our solar system (on top of the thousands of exoplanets Kepler has discovered so far). The total known planet count beyond our solar system is now more than 3,700. The planets range in size from mostly rocky super-Earths and fluffy mini-Neptunes, to Jupiter-like giants. They include a new planet orbiting a very bright star—the brightest star ever discovered by Kepler to have a transiting planet.
4—Here comes TESS.
How many more exoplanets are out there waiting to be discovered? TESS will monitor more than 200,000 of the nearest and brightest stars in search of transit events—periodic dips in a star’s brightness caused by planets passing in front—and is expected to find thousands of exoplanets.
5—With a sidekick, too.
Ourupcoming James Webb Space Telescope, will provide important follow-up observations of some of the most promising TESS-discovered exoplanets. It will also allow scientists to study their atmospheres and, in some special cases, search for signs that these planets could support life.
6—Prepped for launch.
TESS is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station nearby our Kennedy Space Center in Florida, no earlier than April 16, pending range approval.
7—A groundbreaking find.
In 1995, 51 Pegasi b (also called “Dimidium”) was the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a star like our Sun. This find confirmed that planets like the ones in our solar system could exist elsewhere in the universe.
A recent statistical estimate places, on average, at least one planet around every star in the galaxy. That means there could be a trillion planets in our galaxy alone, many of them in the range of Earth’s size.
9—Signs of life.
Of course, our ultimate science goal is to find unmistakable signs of current life. How soon can that happen? It depends on two unknowns: the prevalence of life in the galaxy and a bit of luck. Read more about the search for life.
Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com. On March 14, we will join people across the U.S. as they celebrate an icon of nerd culture: the number pi.
So well known and beloved is pi, also written π or 3.14, that it has a national holiday named in its honor. And it’s not just for mathematicians and rocket scientists. National Pi Day is widely celebrated among students, teachers and science fans, too. Read on to find out what makes pi so special, how it’s used to explore space and how you can join the celebration with resources from our collection.
1—Remind me, what is pi?
Pi, also written π, is the Swiss Army knife of numbers. No matter how big or small a circle – from the size of our universe all the way down to an atom or smaller – the ratio of a circle’s circumference (the distance around it) to its diameter (the distance across it) is always equal to pi. Most commonly, pi is used to answer questions about anything circular or spherical, so it comes in handy especially when you’re dealing with space exploration.
2—How much pi do you need?
For simplicity, pi is often rounded to 3.14, but its digits go on forever and don’t appear to have any repeating patterns. While people have made it a challenge to memorize record-breaking digits of pi or create computer programs to calculate them, you really don’t need that many digits for most calculations – even at NASA. Here’s one of our engineers on how many decimals of pi you need.
Pi pops up in everything from rocket-science-level math to the stuff you learn in elementary school, so it’s gained a sort of cult following. On March 14 (or 3/14 in U.S. date format) in 1988, a physicist at the San Francisco Exploratorium held what is thought to be the first official Pi Day celebration, which smartly included the consumption of fruit pies. Math teachers quickly realized the potential benefits of teaching students about pi while they ate pie, and it all caught on so much that in 2009, the U.S. Congress officially declared March 14 National Pi Day. Here’s how to turn your celebration into a teachable moment.
4—Pi helps us explore space!
Space is full of circular and spherical features, and to explore them, engineers at NASA build spacecraft that make elliptical orbits and guzzle fuel from cylindrical fuel tanks, and measure distances on circular wheels. Beyond measurements and space travel, pi is used to find out what planets are made of and how deep alien oceans are, and to study newly discovered worlds. In other words, pi goes a long way at NASA.
5—Not just for rocket scientists.
No Pi Day is complete without a little problem solving. Even the math-averse will find something to love about this illustrated math challenge that features real questions scientists and engineers must answer to explore and study space – like how to determine the size of a distant planet you can’t actually see. Four new problems are added to the challenge each year and answers are released the day after Pi Day.
For teachers, the question is not whether to celebrate Pi Day, but how to celebrate it. (And how much pie is too much? Answer: The limit does not exist.) Luckily, our Education Office has an online catalog for teachers with all 20 of its “Pi in the Sky” math challenge questions for grades 4-12. Each lesson includes a description of the real-world science and engineering behind the problem, an illustrated handout and answer key, and a list of applicable Common Core Math and Next Generation Science Standards.
7—How Do We celebrate?
In a way, we celebrate Pi Day every day by using pi to explore space. But in our free time, we’ve been known to make and eat space-themed pies, too! Share your own nerdy celebrations with us here.
8—A pop-culture icon.
The fascination with pi, as well its popularity and accessibility have made it a go-to math reference in books, movies and television. Ellie, the protagonist in Carl Sagan’s book “Contact,” finds a hidden message from aliens in the digits of pi. In the original “Star Trek” series, Spock commanded an alien entity that had taken over the computer to compute pi to the last digit – an impossible task given that the digits of pi are infinite. And writers of “The Simpsons,” a show known for referencing math, created an episode in which Apu claims to know pi to 40,000 digits and proves it by stating that the 40,000th digit is 1.
9—A numbers game.
Calculating record digits of pi has been a pastime of mathematicians for millennia. Until the 1900s, these calculations were done by hand and reached records in the 500s. Once computers came onto the scene, that number jumped into the thousands, millions and now trillions. Scientist and pi enthusiast Peter Trueb holds the current record – 22,459,157,718,361 digits – which took his homemade computer 105 days of around-the-clock number crunching to achieve. The record for the other favorite pastime of pi enthusiasts, memorizing digits of pi, stands at 70,030.
10—Time to throw in the tau?
As passionate as people are about pi, there are some who believe things would be a whole lot better if we replaced pi with a number called tau, which is equal to 2π or 6.28. Because many formulas call for 2π, tau-enthusiasts say tau would provide a more elegant and efficient way to express those formulas. Every year on Pi Day, a small debate ensues. While we won’t take sides, we will say that pi is more widely used at NASA because it has applications far beyond geometry, where 2π is found most often. Perhaps most important, though, for pi- and pie-lovers alike is there’s no delicious homonym for tau.