Sharing Scientific Discoveries with the World
Making astronomy engaging, understandable, and relevant for diverse audiences.
How do you explore the universe? One way is to connect to the resources that the public outreach team at the institute creates. With our deep connection to the science of NASA astrophysics, we produce data-driven experiences: exhibits and displays, applications for hand-held devices, in-person activities, videos, and articles to help the public immerse themselves in awe-inspiring science.
Zooming Through Space
Visualize pretending to swim like a dolphin through a galaxy, seeing your hand through a black plastic bag, or scrolling through constellations to zoom in to images captured by NASA’s Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer space telescopes. Welcome to the innovative displays we present at festivals each year. In April 2018, our staff engaged thousands of visitors at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., helping children and adults explore the universe.
More than 350,000 attendees visited the weekend festival and many stopped to explore our exhibits, including WebbVR, an infrared camera, and WorldWide Telescope (the last is managed by the American Astronomical Society). Visitors were also able to explore hands-on light and color activities, which showcase how Hubble’s iconic images are made.
WebbVR, which engages users in the science that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will explore, was a particular highlight. In this virtual reality experience, available for free online, viewers may visit the telescope at its orbit 1 million miles from Earth, explore the planets and moons in our solar system, build a planet, or shoot stars into a black hole. It presents data-based physics and the electromagnetic spectrum in new, accessible ways—and visitors proved it is habit-forming.
Each year, through several on-site festivals like this, our public outreach team engages visitors to increase awareness and excitement about our missions, including the Hubble and Webb space telescopes, helping to inspire individuals by providing direct connections to science.
Composing the Lagoon Nebula at Home
As part of our work to lead the NASA’s Universe of Learning program, we invited the public to put their image-processing skills to the test by recreating Hubble’s 28th anniversary image of the Lagoon Nebula using the program’s resources. Known as NASA’s Astrophoto Challenge, this pilot project provided users with two options: Use the data from Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer or capture new telescope data (that night!) with the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network, operated by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Next, participants used tools—very similar to those used by professional astronomers—to process the image.
Participants began the project with a grayscale image, just as our imaging specialists would, and then toggled the images from each telescope filter, trying to highlight the stars, gas, and dust clearly. To support users in this self-directed experience, our collaborative team created a video to explain the process so participants could learn how to adjust scale, brightness, and contrast, and combine images from different filters to create full-color images. Users seeking additional inspiration could also visit AstroPix—a gallery of images from space- and ground-based telescopes—to view the Lagoon Nebula across the electromagnetic spectrum and quickly recognize that there are many types of images of the same celestial target.
Scientists across the country led small groups through the challenge, but users largely participated from the comfort of their own homes. New challenges will launch in 2019, engaging participants in immersive, authentic experiences.
Revealing a Developing Solar System
Take a moment to examine this image. In between opaque blotches of gas and dust, stars appear. But what are the dark triangles at the top right? It’s easy to spot the Sun-like star known as HBC 672. The triangles flanking it are shadows cast by a circumstellar disk that is too small and too distant to be directly observed.
How do we know this? The shadow itself. Nicknamed the Bat Shadow, it is created by a circumstellar disk—a vast, rotating mass of dust and gas that surrounds the core of a developing solar system and marks the earliest stage of planet formation. Hubble observations taken in 2018 to further study this object allowed scientists to work directly with educators, writers, and visualizers to demonstrate how shadows enable us to explore otherwise hidden phenomena.
Although the disk that gives rise to the Bat Shadow is common around young stars, the combination of the viewing angle and the surrounding cloud of gas and dust that lets us observe the shadow is rare. By examining the shadow, astronomers can study the shape and composition of the circumstellar disk. Our public outreach team, in collaboration with the NASA’s Universe of Learning team, communicated the exciting science story of the Bat Shadow not only through a news release, but also in a ViewSpace video segment (a self-updating multimedia exhibit produced by the NASA’s Universe of Learning partners). It’s part of a series about shadows that explains what they reveal about celestial objects.
This example demonstrates how our public engagement teams collaborate: We work with astronomers and educators, both on our team and across NASA’s Universe of Learning, to produce products that communicate the processes of science—and exciting discoveries—by using new and archival telescope observations year-round.
Reaching Wider Audiences with NASA’s Universe of Learning
Imagine creating your own planet, examining—and then painting—a planetary nebula, or diffracting light with a modified cereal box. Children participated in programs built on NASA’s Universe of Learning resources at libraries, science centers, museums, and other informal learning centers at more than 20 sites across the country in 2018.
The initiative had informal learning center staff create projects based on resources and training provided by staff who support NASA’s Universe of Learning, including the Space Telescope Science Institute, California Institute of Technology/IPAC, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and Sonoma State University.
At the Springfield Museum of Art in Ohio (shown above), staff conducted weeklong camps for youth to learn about astrophysics and then create their own art, which was then displayed in one of the galleries for parents to enjoy. What these projects demonstrated is that by combining a new discipline and astronomy expertise, staff were able to enhance their educational resources and engage participants in exciting STEM projects.
Learn how to connect to the resources provided by the NASA’s Universe of Learning program, and learn more about the institutions that support it.
Explore and Compose Astronomical Imagery
You don’t need to be a professional astronomer to participate in the scientific process! Make sophisticated observations in space, compose an image from the raw data you collect—just like professional astronomers—and compare it to images of the same object from multiple space- and ground-based telescopes, all with NASA’s Universe of Learning resources. You can also participate in upcoming NASA’s Astrophoto Challenges, which run periodically throughout the year. Begin your journey and check out past entries!
Step 1: Observe a Celestial Target
Take new observations with MicroObservatory and receive the data within 48 hours.
Step 2: Build Scientific Practices
Use the astronomer’s tool to process a multi-colored image. See recent submissions.
Step 3: Compare and Contrast
Compare NASA-produced images on AstroPix with your own.
Step 4: Continue Exploring
Create your own NASA image using NASA data and the astronomer’s tool.