In Nature!

July 5, 2011

Check out today’s article in Nature online, and Wednesday in the print version of Nature:  NASA faces dearth of mission leaders, by Eric Hand.

That article, my friends, discusses my poster at last week’s science conference.  I had to wait until it was published to tell you!


One last bit, and then —

July 4, 2011

… one last bit about the conference.  Or actually, an MSNBC.com link about the conference, called “Space on a Budget Balances Risk and Innovation.”  It gives a nice overview of our panel on the last day.  I don’t have a picture of us on the panel (wish I did), but imagine me in a snazzy suit jacket (yes, the same one I wore the next day to Type A Mom) at a table with my old boss, now a manager at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory; the head of Aerospace Corp’s NASA business; and the head of the Space Science Review Office at NASA Langley.  We each gave 5-10 minutes about the challenges facing small planetary missions, and then we answered questions from the audience.

I went first.  I was asked to give an overview of the history of the program, and I did, including several observations about challenges that have faced missions and the program itself, and three things I find challenging today.  It went really well — so well, in fact, that the moderator responded by saying that my upcoming book “should be required reading” for people interested in planetary missions!

I’ll take that!

Now all I have to do is finish editing it into something that is as much a joy to read as it has been for me to research and write!

Tomorrow: Type A Mom, Bloganthropy, and a dress made out of stars.


NASA Open House

May 13, 2011

Looking for something to do in the LA or DC areas this weekend?  Check out the NASA Open Houses in at least two areas across the country!  For West Coasters, there’s the JPL Open House in Pasadena, CA.  East Coasters, how about the GSFC Open House in Greenbelt, MD.  Both are free and open to the public — and a fantastic opportunity to get a peek into the nation’s space program!  Live farther away (like Australia or New Zealand)?  You can still take a peek at the latest news about our solar system AND a page of fun for kids at NASA’s Solar System Exploration page (also on Facebook).

Have fun!


Meet the Planets (with giveaway!)

April 28, 2011

Meet The Planets, by John McGranaghan, is a beautiful way to introduce your kid (or your kid’s classroom) to our solar system!  The style is casual and conversational, with Pluto as the host of a game show-like Favorite Planet Competition.  The illustrations, by Laurie Allen Klein, are intricately detailed and simply gorgeous, with so much more than the planets themselves illustrated — each page also includes depictions of spacecraft visiting the planets and an audience of astronomers, moons, and constellation imagery.  The book is great as an on-your-own exploration or an engaging read-aloud for younger kids.  We’ve had our copy for a few days, and my kindergartner has picked it up to investigate on his own again and again.

A helpful appendix includes six pages of learning activities, not unlike the ones in the Tag books for little ones, but these much more intricately detailed, teaching science, math, technology, and education (STEM) skills like collecting data, working with time and temperature, comparing the length of a day and a year for the planets, working with large numbers (up to 4.5 billion km, the average distance from the Sun to Neptune), images to explore (from Stonehenge to Cassini), and a true/false quiz based on facts introduced earlier in the book.  The activities are supplemented with additional free activities that anyone can download.

This book is a lot of fun, with beautiful illustrations and a concept that doesn’t leave poor little Pluto out in the cold.  Well, not any colder than he already is! 

Full disclosure: C and I reviewed this book for scientific accuracy; we’re credited on the flap, but we received no financial compensation for the work or for this post.  I did receive a couple copies to use or give away —

If you’d like to be entered to win a copy of Meet the Planets, just leave a comment below.  For extra entries, “like” Toddler Planet and/or Women in Planetary Science on Facebook, and leave another comment telling me that you’ve done so!  I’ll use random.org to select the winner and mail the books at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3.


Planetary telescopes for preschoolers: how to

March 29, 2011

Construction paper, tape, hole punch, pin, stickers or crayonsThis is a fun craft/activity to help little kids learn about planets and the stars.  There are many ways to make a planetary telescope; this is one simple way that’s easy for busy parents to help their kids make their very own telescope and learn about the solar system.

What you’ll make: (nonworking) telescopes that your kids can use to view the planets, stars, and, well, just about anything else.

What you’ll need: Construction paper or cardstock, tape, hole punch, straight or safety pin, and pictures of the solar system or constellations. 

Prep time: 5 minutes, for downloading pictures of the solar system from this NASA web site, or for finding your own pictures in a book, magazine, or newspaper.  Set aside a piece of dark construction paper (blue and green work best) and cut a 4″ square of black construction paper for each child. pinholes in black paper make stars Take the pin and poke holes in the black square.  Punch a single hole in the paper if you have a hole punch handy.  If you’re feeling really brave, punch the pinholes in the design of one of the constellations… but this totally isn’t necessary (I didn’t think of it — thanks to Kim in NY for the idea!).

The words you use and the way you implement the activity is up to you, of course.  The idea is to use the rolled up construction paper to look at the planets, and then tape the black paper with pinholes to the end and look out the window or near a bright light to see the “stars.”  In the rest of this post,  I’ll share with you a bit of how it went when Widget (age 6) and I did this project with Little Bear (age 4)’s preschool class, just because it was such fun and I want to remember.  I’ll spare you the pauses, interruptions, and little kid stories, but just know that there were dozens and it was awesome.

Me: Have you ever been outside late at night and seen the stars? (Most of them had, and they wanted to tell me all about it!  After a bit, I continued.)  They’re beautiful, aren’t they?  Did you know that for a very long time, that’s the best that anyone could see the stars?  But people have always wondered about the night sky, and they wanted to be able to see the stars and planets better.  Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a man named Galileo made a new tool so he could see the stars better.  He called it a telescope. (At this, I rolled a piece of paper into a cylinder, lengthwise, and sealed it with a piece of tape.  A staple at each end works better but may be sharp.) 

This is a tool that scientists use to see the stars and planets better.  Would you like one to use today? (Widget handed a cylinder to each child as I talked.)  A real telescope has mirrors and lenses (touch eyeglasses to show what a lens is), but this one will work fine for today.  Is everybody ready to use their telescopes to see the stars? (chorus of yes)

Does anyone know what our closest star is?

The sun!  That’s right, the sun that you see in the sky every day is actually a star, and while it looks warm and friendly to us, when the mommies and daddies who work at NASA made a big enough telescope, they found out that it really looks like this: (show them the real picture of the sun; for very young kids, fold the picture back so that only the largest image shows).  What does that look like to you?  Do you think it’s cold there, or hot?  That’s right, it’s very hot!  It’s so hot that it warms the planets in our solar system.  Would you like to see some planets now?

Mercury is the planet closest to the sun (show them the picture of Mercury).  It is very, very hot on the side closest to the sun, but it has a secret — it turns around (rotates) very, very slowly, so one side is almost always hot — and the other is very, very cold!  On Mercury, it takes almost a year for the planet to turn enough so that it goes from day to night and night to day again, so one side is really hot, and the other side is really cold.  Does that sound like a fun place to live?  (Kids say no.)  Let’s get a better look, through our telescopes!  (Widget shows the picture to the kids, moving it slowly so that each can get a really good look in turn.)

Venus is the next planet.  (Show picture, kids look at it through telescopes while we talk.)  It’s still pretty close to the sun.  Do you think Venus is hot or cold?  (hot)  Venus is hot, and it is not a great place to live. 

Let’s see.  What colors are on this next planet?  (Show the picture of Earth; it is blue, green, and white).  That’s right.  Does anyone know what this planet is?  That’s right, Earth!  What do you think the blue is? (water) What do you think the green is? (grass, trees, or land) And what do you think these white swirly things are that are way up above the water and the land?  That’s right, clouds!  Isn’t this planet beautiful?  Let’s pretend we’re out in space and we can see it with our telescopes.  Ready, set, go! (Show picture as kids look at it through the telescopes.)

And so on and so forth.  After Mars (red, hot, dusty, with occasional dust devils; feel free to compare the red color to the look of a rusty nail if your kids have ever seen one – it’s actually very much the same kind of thing), stop at the asteroid belt and ask them what an asteroid looks like.  They might be disappointed – and that’s ok – it does really just look like a rock.  That’s because it IS a rock. 

Then the gas giants – Jupiter, with its swirly storms; Saturn, with its beautiful rings; Uranus and Neptune, which I admit I did together because we don’t know a lot about them yet and the kids were getting fidgety; and icy Pluto, which used to be a planet but now has its own special name: dwarf planet, and it hangs out at the edge of the solar system with lots of other dwarf planets that mommies and daddies have found with great big telescopes … and some that haven’t even yet been discovered. 

Encouraging the kids to look at each picture through their very own telescope helped keep even the 3 year olds engaged for this 30 minute activity, and I was very happy with the way this activity came out.  It was a fun way to introduce these little ones to the solar system where we live, and I left the black squares with pinholes with the teacher for a craft later in the morning — just tape the squares to the end of the planetary telescope and hold it up to a window or in a well-lit room so that they can see the stars, even if they’re not allowed to stay up late very often to see the real ones.  I loved doing this activity with my kids and the kids at preschool, and I hope this helps you do this activity or another one with your kids too!

More kids solar system activities can be found at NASA Kids.


On my soapbox: Women’s History Month at NASA

March 25, 2011

Several people have sent me a photo of NASA’s Women’s History Month Celebration recently, expressing dismay at the images NASA and the White House chose to represent women inspiring the next generation…

… please continue reading today’s post at Women in Planetary Science


A big day for a little spacecraft: MESSENGER

March 18, 2011

MESSENGER MOIIt was St. Patrick’s Day, and the crowd of nearly 400 waited expectantly in the Kossiakoff auditorium at APL. Irish dancing music was piped into the auditorium as recorded interviews of Daniel O’Shaughnessy, Eric Finnegan, and Eric Calloway played on the giant screen, reviewing the six planetary gravity assists, the five deep space maneuvers, and the big idea to add solar sailing that arose as the spacecraft approached the first Mercury flyby. “It really is akin to a ship on the ocean,” said Calloway, “sails tacking back and forth.”

Onstage, Ralph McNutt reviewed the mission design, interspersing one-liners with technical details to keep the crowd relaxed. “MESSENGER is a flying gas can. Over half the mass is propellant,” he explained, and as quickly as the audience laughed, his words were instantly tweeted by several eager space enthusiasts watching there and over ustream online. Social media was a presence at MOI, with @MESSENGER2011 tweeting her progress throughout the night in words that her followers could understand, with her impact multiplied with each tweet and retweet from space fans throughout the world.

The mood was quiet, expectant, jubilant, and a little tense at Kossiakoff, as the team waited with their families and invited guests to see confirmation that MESSENGER had indeed gone into orbit. Tom Krimigis was there in the second row, a few seats down from Bob Farquhar and others who had worked so hard from proposal to mission operations to make this dream come true. Co-Investigators and engineers were scattered through the audience, their inevitable worry tempered with the confidence that comes from years of solid design and development, followed nearly endless drills for the mission operations team, now prepared to handle any anomaly. The screen showed live shots of the engineers at their workstations, waiting the long eight minutes for confirmation of each maneuver from their faraway spacecraft, the one that they had only a few years ago built in the lab out of parts. Associate Administrator Ed Weiler had spoken to the team earlier, reminding them that this was a major accomplishment: “You only go into orbit around Mercury first once in human history, and that’s what is accomplished tonight.”

As speakers and videos entertained the audience, informing them about new technologies, materials, and designs used on MESSENGER, those in the know waited anxiously to hear the announcement from the Mission Operations Control Center (MOCC) that the burn had been completed successfully and the spacecraft nudged into its oval orbit around Mercury, 155 million kilometers (over 96 million miles) from Earth. Then, through the onstage talk, his words could be heard loud and clear, and the crowd burst into spontaneous applause.

The burn “was right on the money,” confirmed Finnegan, Messenger’s chief engineer, later in the evening. “This is as close you can possibly get to being perfect.” Principal Investigator Sean Solomon reminded the gathering that the science team was thrilled at a successful MOI because it would enable the science that was to come, saying, “This is when the real mission begins.”

In that moment, humankind completed its goal of orbiting Mercury, the sixth planet in the solar system to be orbited by a spacecraft built by humans out of parts.  There was relief and smiles on every face, and we began to relax at a reception in the next room, mingling with scientists, engineers, and managers who had made the mission possible, as @MESSENGER2011 tweeted: “We’ve done it! I’m in orbit around Mercury—the first spaceship to ever do (or tweet) that! #MOI2011.

This is just the beginning of the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.  Find out more about MESSENGER Deputy Project Scientist Louise Prockter and Participating Scientist Catherine Johnson on the Women in Planetary Science website — and find great resources for kids at the MESSENGER Education Site .  Let’s celebrate!