NASA Space Place March 2018
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With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology.
Visit to explore space and Earth science!

Measuring the Movement of Water on Earth
By Teagan Wall

As far as we know, water is essential for every form of life. It’s a simple molecule, and we know a lot about it. Water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. It boils at 212° Fahrenheit (100° Celsius) and freezes at 32° Fahrenheit (0° Celsius). The Earth’s surface is more than 70 percent covered in water.

On our planet, we find water at every stage: liquid, solid (ice), and gas (steam and vapor). Our bodies are mostly water. We use it to drink, bathe, clean, grow crops, make energy, and more. With everything it does, measuring where the water on Earth is, and how it moves, is no easy task.

The world’s oceans, lakes, rivers and streams are water. However, there’s also water frozen in the ice caps, glaciers, and icebergs. There’s water held in the tiny spaces between rocks and soils deep underground. With so much water all over the planet—including some of it hidden where we can’t see—NASA scientists have to get creative to study it all. One way that NASA will measure where all that water is and how it moves, is by launching a set of spacecraft this spring called GRACE-FO.

GRACE-FO stands for the “Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on.” “Follow-on” means it’s the second satellite mission like this—a follow-up to the original GRACE mission. GRACE-FO will use two satellites. One satellite will be about 137 miles (220 km) behind the other as they orbit the Earth. As the satellites move, the gravity of the Earth will pull on them.

Gravity isn’t the same everywhere on Earth. Areas with more mass—like big mountains—have a stronger gravitational pull than areas with less mass. When the GRACE-FO satellites fly towards an area with stronger gravitational pull, the first satellite will be pulled a little faster. When the second GRACE-FO satellite reaches the stronger gravity area, it will be pulled faster, and catch up.

Scientists combine this distance between the two satellites with lots of other information to create a map of Earth’s gravity field each month. The changes in that map will tell them how land and water move on our planet. For example, a melting glacier will have less water, and so less mass, as it melts. Less mass means less gravitational pull, so the GRACE-FO satellites will have less distance between them. That data can be used to help scientists figure out if the glacier is melting.

GRACE-FO will also be able to look at how Earth’s overall weather changes from year to year. For example, the satellite can monitor certain regions to help us figure out how severe a drought is. These satellites will help us keep track of one of the most important things to all life on this planet: water.

You can learn more about our planet’s most important molecule here: **link**

An artist's rendering of the twin GRACE-FO spacecraft in orbit around Earth. Credit: NASA

NASA Space Place February 2018
This article is provided by NASA Space Place.
With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology.
Visit to explore space and Earth science!

What Is the Ionosphere?
By Linda Hermans-Killiam

High above Earth is a very active part of our upper atmosphere called the ionosphere. The ionosphere gets its name from ions—tiny charged particles that blow around in this layer of the atmosphere.

How did all those ions get there? They were made by energy from the Sun!

Everything in the universe that takes up space is made up of matter, and matter is made of tiny particles called atoms. At the ionosphere, atoms from the Earth’s atmosphere meet up with energy from the Sun. This energy, called radiation, strips away parts of the atom. What’s left is a positively or negatively charged atom, called an ion.

The ionosphere is filled with ions. These particles move about in a giant wind. However, conditions in the ionosphere change all the time. Earth’s seasons and weather can cause changes in the ionosphere, as well as radiation and particles from the Sun—called space weather.

These changes in the ionosphere can cause problems for humans. For example, they can interfere with radio signals between Earth and satellites. This could make it difficult to use many of the tools we take for granted here on Earth, such as GPS. Radio signals also allow us to communicate with astronauts on board the International Space Station, which orbits Earth within the ionosphere. Learning more about this region of our atmosphere may help us improve forecasts about when these radio signals could be distorted and help keep humans safe.

In 2018, NASA has plans to launch two missions that will work together to study the ionosphere. NASA's GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk) mission launched in January 2018. GOLD will orbit 22,000 miles above Earth. From way up there, it will be able to create a map of the ionosphere over the Americas every half hour. It will measure the temperature and makeup of gases in the ionosphere. GOLD will also study bubbles of charged gas that are known to cause communication problems.

A second NASA mission, called ICON, short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer, will launch later in 2018. It will be placed in an orbit just 350 miles above Earth—through the ionosphere. This means it will have a close-up view of the upper atmosphere to pair with GOLD’s wider view. ICON will study the forces that shape this part of the upper atmosphere.

Both missions will study how the ionosphere is affected by Earth and space weather. Together, they will give us better observations of this part of our atmosphere than we have ever had before.

To learn more about the ionosphere, check out NASA Space Place: **link**

This illustration shows the layers of Earth’s atmosphere. NASA’s GOLD and ICON missions will work together to study the ionosphere, a region of charged particles in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Changes in the ionosphere can interfere with the radio waves used to communicate with satellites and astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Duberstein (modified)

NASA Space Place December 2017
This article is provided by NASA Space Place.
With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology.
Visit to explore space and Earth science!

Snowy Worlds Beyond Earth
By Linda Hermans-Killiam

There are many places on Earth where it snows, but did you know it snows on other worlds, too? Here are just a few of the places where you might find snow beyond Earth:

The north pole and south pole of Mars have ice caps that grow and shrink with the seasons. These ice caps are made mainly of water ice—the same kind of ice you’d find on Earth. However, the snow that falls there is made of carbon dioxide—the same ingredient used to make dry ice here on Earth. Carbon dioxide is in the Martian atmosphere and it freezes and falls to the surface of the planet as snow. In 2017, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took photos of the sand dunes around Mars' north pole. The slopes of these dunes were covered with carbon dioxide snow and ice.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this image of carbon dioxide snow covering dunes on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A Moon of Jupiter: Io
There are dozens of moons that orbit Jupiter and one of them, called Io, has snowflakes made out of sulfur. In 2001, NASA's Galileo spacecraft detected these sulfur snowflakes just above Io's south pole. The sulfur shoots into space from a volcano on Io's surface. In space, the sulfur quickly freezes to form snowflakes that fall back down to the surface.

A volcano shooting molten sulfur out from the surface of Io. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Moon of Saturn: Enceladus
Saturn's moon, Enceladus, has geysers that shoot water vapor out into space. There it freezes and falls back to the surface as snow. Some of the ice also escapes Enceladus to become part of Saturn's rings. The water vapor comes from a heated ocean which lies beneath the moon’s icy surface. (Jupiter’s moon Europa is also an icy world with a liquid ocean below the frozen surface.) All of this ice and snow make Enceladus one of the brightest objects in our solar system.

Enceladus as viewed from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA

A Moon of Neptune: Triton
Neptune's largest moon is Triton. It has the coldest surface known in our solar system. Triton's atmosphere is made up mainly of nitrogen. This nitrogen freezes onto its surface covering Triton with ice made of frozen nitrogen. Triton also has geysers like Enceladus, though they are smaller and made of nitrogen rather than water.

The Voyager 2 mission captured this image of Triton. The black streaks are created by nitrogen geysers. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

Farther out in our solar system lies the dwarf planet Pluto. In 2016, scientists on the New Horizons mission discovered a mountain chain on Pluto where the mountains were capped with methane snow and ice.

The snowy Cthulhu (pronounced kuh-THU-lu) mountain range on Pluto.

Beyond Our Solar System
There might even be snow far outside our solar system! Kepler-13Ab is a hot, giant planet 1,730 light years from Earth. It's nine times more massive than Jupiter and it orbits very close to its star. The Hubble Space Telescope detected evidence of titanium oxide—the mineral used in sunscreen—in this planet’s upper atmosphere. On the cooler side of Kepler-13Ab that faces away from its host star, the planet’s strong gravity might cause the titanium oxide to fall down as “snow.”

This is an artist’s illustration of what Kepler-13Ab might look like. Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)

Want to learn more about weather on other planets? Check out NASA Space Place: **link**

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