Category Archives: Science News for Kids

Armchair Explorer: Postcards from the Red Planet

Self-Portrait of Mars Rover Curiosity – NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

No matter how far you go, it’s always nice to keep in touch with the folks back home. That’s especially true for a spacecraft that has traveled millions of miles just to send pictures and other information from the surface of Mars back to scientists on Earth.

On June 19, researchers at NASA released their biggest, most detailed picture ever of the surface of Mars. For space fans following the progress of NASA’s Mars rover — named “Curiosity” — as it explores the surface of the Red Planet, pictures are nothing new. One of the great things about NASA is that mission scientists share lots of the data sent back to Earth. Armchair explorers can browse information on the Web — photos, charts, maps, animations and multimedia — alongside scientists around the world.

But the latest picture is NASA’s hugest ever (in camera terms, more than one billion pixels!), which means you can change your viewing angle, move it around and look at different parts of it. When you see something interesting, you can zoom in for closer inspection. See an interesting rock a mile away? No problem. Click and zoom until you get a better look.

It’s as close as you can get to taking a stroll around the surface of Mars.

Billion-Pixel View of Mars Surface with Pan and Zoom

The reason such detail is possible is that the image is made by stitching together nearly 900 pictures taken by Curiosity as it moved around the surface. The pictures were taken over several days in the October and November of 2012. The area photographed includes a windblown patch named “Rocknest,” and extends to Mount Sharp on the horizon. “It gives a sense of place and really shows off the cameras’ capabilities,” said Bob Deen of the Multi-Mission Image Processing Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

To access the image and start your own “roving” adventure, go click on the link above.


NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an independent agency of the United States government responsible for aviation and spaceflight.

PIXEL: The basic unit of the composition of an image on a display screen; basically, one single dot that can’t be divided.


PRESS RELEASE: Billion-Pixel View of Mars Comes From Curiosity Rover

WEB: NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory

WEB: NASA’s All About Mars

WIKI: Mars Science Laboratory

WEB: Information on NASA’s Multi-Mission Image Processing Laboratory


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS “Updated Curiosity Self-Portrait at ‘John Klein'” This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013), plus three exposures taken during Sol 270 (May 10, 2013) to update the appearance of part of the ground beside the rover. The updated area, which is in the lower left quadrant of the image, shows gray-powder and two holes where Curiosity used its drill on the rock target “John Klein.” The portion has been spliced into a self-portrait that was prepared and released in February (, before the use of the drill. The result shows what the site where the self-portrait was taken looked like by the time the rover was ready to drive away from that site in May 2013.

The rover’s robotic arm is not visible in the mosaic. MAHLI, which took the component images for this mosaic, is mounted on a turret at the end of the arm. Wrist motions and turret rotations on the arm allowed MAHLI to acquire the mosaic’s component images. The arm was positioned out of the shot in the images, or portions of images, used in the mosaic.

Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, developed, built and operates MAHLI. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project and the mission’s Curiosity rover for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed and assembled at JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

History Underfoot: Trash Piles or Treasure Troves?

historyunderfootThink you have to go to Egypt and find a mummy to be an archaeologist? Think again!

Archaeologists are equal opportunity explorers and want to learn how all kinds of people lived in all kinds of places. Ancient cities and secret chambers filled with golden treasure are certainly exciting. But so is the friendly neighborhood trash dump of a few hundred years ago!

Earlier this month at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University, construction workers began a project to restore a building on campus. An archaeology professor went to check out the work site. Guess what. She immediately noticed artifacts on the surface of the ground where the grass had been removed.

The professor, Alison Bell, worked with one of her students to dig up a small square of ground. They soon found thousands of artifacts from the early 1800s.

Among the finds were belt buckles, buttons, a penny, a pocketknife, bone toothbrushes, writing slates, medicine vials, broken plates and pottery, bone handles, various types of bullets, a small metal musical instrument called a jaw harp — the list goes on and on.

This treasure trove of artifacts had been buried for 200 years just two inches deep in the ground. Students had been walking over them on their way to class the whole time.

Bell believes she may be digging in what amounts to a trash pile that built up outside a building where students lived from 1804 to 1835. In those days, it was common to simply throw broken items and trash out the back door. “Everybody did this, and we find collections of artifacts often accumulate around doorways,” she said.

It will take more time and more study for Bell to test her idea, but the items are sure to help researchers learn more about the day-to-day lives of university students of that time.

And there’s a lesson in this story for you, too.

When you are walking around, pay attention the next time workers are tearing up a sidewalk or digging a trench to bury underground cable. The nearby pile of dirt — especially if it has been rained on a time or two — may begin to show little bits of broken cups and plates. The rain washes away loose dirt, leaving the hard items right on the surface of the dirt.

If you are downtown in a city that has been around for a 100 years or more, it is not rare at all to find artifacts. The trick is figuring out what you are looking at and how old it is. As you do research to learn when and where the broken teacup handle you found was made, you’ll be doing the time-honored work of Archaeology!

How Do You Spell That, Again? Archaeology is one of those words that can be spelled two ways: Arch-a-eology and Archeology (without the second ‘a’). The first way is a little more common, and also looks a bit more old-fashioned — perfect for a word about studying the ancient past. Learn to spell it both ways to impress friends and teachers, alike!


Archaeologist: A type of scientist who studies past cultures, normally by studying the sites where they lived and the old things they used (artifacts).

Artifact: A portable object made, modified or used by humans. Think of arrowheads used by Native Americans, cave paintings in France, or the metal helmets worn by the solders of ancient Greece.


Washington and Lee Archeologists Make Major Finds at Construction Site

National Park Service: Archeology for Kids

Archaeology Facts

Dig: The Archaeology Magazine for Kids

Historical Archaeology at The Florida Museum of Natural History

PHOTO CREDIT: Alison Bell, associate professor of archaeology, with a sampling of artifacts from the Robinson Hall site. Courtesy of Washington and Lee University, Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

What Happened to Planet Pluto?

planet_pluto_facesFor 75 years, kids around the world learned about the nine planets that go around (orbit) the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. And then in 2006, Pluto was gone; there were only eight planets! What happened to Pluto?

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. And from the beginning we knew that Pluto was weird. It was not like the other eight.

It was usually the farthest planet from the sun, though sometimes it was closer than Neptune. It was tiny, smaller than Earth’s Moon. It wasn’t round either, more like a potato than a ball.

And while the other eight planets orbits are almost circular, Pluto’s orbit was a deep oval (like the shape of an egg). And it has 4 moons, one almost as big as Pluto itself.

None of that bothered space scientists (astronomers) until 2005 when they found a 10th planet, Ceres! Ceres is bigger than Pluto, but just as weird. But just when they were about to update all the textbooks to include #10, they found an 11th, Eris.

Soon astronomers realized that Ceres and Eris were just some of hundreds of objects orbiting way out past Neptune. If Ceres is a planet, then they all are! Imagine having to memorize all of them for a science quiz!

So the scientists changed the definition of “planet.” Definitions are really important in science. They keep everyone in the world talking the same language. So making the change was a big deal.

After much debate, they agreed that to be called a planet, you needed to:

  1. Be nearly round like a ball
  2. Have an orbit close to a circle around the Sun
  3. Have cleared out the neighborhood (orbit) of other floating junk

Pluto, Ceres and all the others did not meet the definition and were officially renamed “Dwarf Planets.”

So, Pluto is still out there, but it is no longer considered a planet. However, it’s still a weird, cool rock. And we are about to learn even more about it In 2015, a NASA rocket arrives at Pluto! The “New Horizons” mission will take the first ever close up look at the most famous dwarf planet.

Fun Phineas Fact: Planet Pluto was named by an 11-year-old girl from England.


WEB: Dwarf Planets


WEB: UniverseToday – Interesting Facts About Pluto

PODCAST: Astronomycast Episode #1

PHOTO CREDIT: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute): This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003.

Sticky Situation: Million-Year-Old Bugs Preserved in Fossilized Amber

spiderattackIf you’ve ever handled a freshly cut Christmas tree or spent an afternoon climbing a neighborhood pine, you know that trees can get pretty sappy. Part of the healing process for a tree that loses a limb or gets a cut in its bark is to fill in the damaged area with sticky, gooey, sappy resin.

This helps the tree form something like a scab. The scab keeps out bad things (like germs) and keeps in good things (like water).

While this excellent healing process is great for the tree, it can be pretty crummy for insects that come along and get stuck in the sap.

But that is not the end of the story.

Fast forward a few million years, and the scientist of today can find well-preserved insect fossils still in the sappy resin. By this time the resin has turned into a fossil itself, called amber.

Researchers have found all kinds of ancient insects in amber, and have found frogs, flowers, lizards, even the bones of small mammals and animal hair. For scientists studying creatures that are mostly long gone, amber adds up to a real treasure trove.

Recently, scientists at Oregon State University have been studying a rare amber fossil that trapped a spider just as it was attacking a wasp that had just gotten stuck in the spider’s web. The spider was moving in for the kill when resin covered the web, freezing them both for all time. Talk about your sticky situations.


Fossil:  the remains or impression of something that was alive in prehistoric times, now preserved in rock

Resin: a thick substance that flows from some types of pine trees

Amber: fossilized resin

Mammal: warm-blooded animals with hair or fur that fed their young milk


PRESS RELEASE: Fossil of ancient spider attack only one of its type ever discovered

WEB: Fossil Information on

WEB: World of Amber: What is Amber?

WEB: Fossils for Kids

ARTICLE: New York Times: Mammal Bones Found in Amber for First Time

WEB: Resin & Tree Damage


© 2012 Oregon State University: “This is the only fossil ever discovered that shows a spider attacking prey in its web. Preserved in amber, it’s about 100 million years old.”

Swarm Alert! Flying Robots Take On Hurricane Research

flow2_fHave you ever heard of “going with the flow?” That’s the idea behind a new generation of small, computer-controlled, airplanes being built to spy on hurricanes. They are only six inches long and weigh less than a iPod Nano, but scientists at the University of Florida believe they are more than a match for the monster storms.

Instead of trying to fight their way through a storm large enough to be seen from space with winds that can reach 200 miles per hour, these aircraft will be positioned near the path of the hurricane so they get pulled in when the storm gets closer. Once they are grabbed by the winds, they power down and go along for the ride. They gather data the whole time, and are smart enough to make small adjustments to stay in place as the storm moves along. They’ll send information about the storm to the laptop computers of scientists stationed hundreds of miles away.

Today, scientists who want to get up close and personal with a hurricane have to build big, expensive airplanes that are strong enough to fly through the storms dropping sensors that send back information as they fall to Earth.

Because the new flying sensors are small and inexpensive, researchers will launch hundreds of them into a single storm, getting data from lots of places all at the same time. This new technology should be ready to test on a real hurricane within two or three years. So in the future, we should understand the storms better than ever.


PRESS RELEASE: Tiny Airplanes and subs could be next hurricane hunters. University of Florida (2013, June 4).

Hurricane Information from Weather for Kids

NASA Hurricanes and Tropical Cyclones Pages

Hurricane Aircraft — Technological Marvels That Fly Through Storms

Eric Zamora/University of Florida: “GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Autonomous flying drones like this one are the result of research by Kamran Mohseni and graduate researchers with the Institute for Networked Autonomous Systems in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida. Photo taken May 30, 2013.”