Planet Preschool

Thanks for visiting!
September 20, 2010, 12:44 am
Filed under: in the news

This blog is no longer active.  For more about the planets and the people who discover new worlds, please visit Women in Planetary  Thank you.


The MESSENGER mission
June 17, 2007, 10:46 am
Filed under: Mercury

The MESSENGER mission to Mercury is underway!  I have a lot to say about this mission and its goals, but today I just have some video for you to enjoy.  Go to

to see movies of the launch (spectacular!) and assembly of this fine spacecraft.  Widget and I particularly enjoy watching the time-lapse assembly videos accessible fom the last link on the page.  It’s quite entetaining to see the guys in white clean suits scurry around and make the mission happen!

Breaking News
June 16, 2007, 8:07 pm
Filed under: in the news

NASA’s 10 astronauts currently on the space station will hold a press conference tonight, 6:08 Eastern time.  It will be carried live on NASA TV and on the web at

Go.  Watch.  Pray.

Press release:

May 3, 2007, 3:40 am
Filed under: sun

Intrigued by the last post and STEREO images?  Check out the newest images from Hinode and SOHO for more stunning new imagery.  This sun is not your average yellow smiley face! 

STEREO images of the Sun
April 30, 2007, 10:10 pm
Filed under: sun

Some days, it’s difficult to believe that the gentle yellow sun presiding over idyllic scenes of toddlers picking dandelions, babies napping on a blanket, and moms preparing fresh-squeezed lemonade (okay, grabbing the juice boxes) is the same




young star

active and dangerous

releasing powerful chunks of its corona,

hydrogen, and high-energy particles 

that can damage spacecraft

disrupt cell phone signals

harm astronauts

and wreak havoc

but it is.

NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft, orbiting the sun a few degees away from each other (one on either side of earth in its orbit), have just returned some amazing images of our closest star.  The STEREO spacecraft were launched just before Halloween by a team of NASA scientists and engineers who spent years imagining, designing, proposing, refining, building, assembling, and finally transporting the instruments and spacecraft down to Cape Canaveral.  It was a beautiful night launch (video here).  All went well, and the images coming back are simply fantastic. 

Of course, the images only tell a small part of the story.  There are four sets of instruments proposed and built by teams from universities and national laboratories from Washington, D.C., to California.  These instruments measure many different aspects of the solar radiation.  When more data has been returned, it will be analysed and reported on in scientific publications.  We’ll follow along here as news is announced, but for now, let’s just sit back and enjoy the first images from this amazing mission. 

Start with this video for kids.  Then feel free to browse around the mission site, including the Learning Center that they’ve set up for members of the public — you and me — and our children.  It’s got everything, from a FAQ to sample classroom activity ideas.  There are also amazing new 3D images  (released just last week!) that can be seen on the web or at many science museums and planetariums around the U.S. — go to the mission home page to find out where!

Introduction to the Planets
April 28, 2007, 11:34 pm
Filed under: Our Solar System

Today we’ll be taking a brief look at the planets in our solar system and getting comfortable with just what’s out there.  There are many ways to approach science learning with little ones; one appoach is to introduce basic concepts at an early age and follow their interest.  Memorization of key facts is not the most critical skill at this age; rather, I would encourage you to focus on two other aspects:

1. There are many worlds out there, both in our solar system and around other stars.

2. Each planet is different. 

The second point is actually key.  In our solar system, some are rocky, some are icy, and some are composed of swirling gases.  In other planetary systems, there may be rocky, icy, gaseous, earth-like planets, and/or others that we can’t even imagine.  We’re just beginning to discover planets around other stars, and we don’t even have the technology to really probe what the newly discovered planets are like at this point.  Some may be very similar to Earth (many astronomers think this must be so), but we are only starting to discover their true natures.  This is going to be a very exciting area of discovery over the next couple decades, as our kids grow up, so it’s nice to introduce them to it now.

But back to basics.  There are eight planets in our solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune).  Three additional large bodies (Pluto, Ceres, and Sedna) have been recently reclassified as dwarf planets.  There are thousands of smaller rocky or icy protoplanets called asteroids (the rocky ones) and comets (the icy ones).   They all formed at about the same time, in what is called the primordial solar nebula. 

All planets orbit the sun.  Each orbit is an ellipse, and both orbital time and path are predictable using a simple mathematical relationship.  Both the size and nature of the planets change with distance from the sun, among other factors.  Here’s a brief introduction, just the facts that might fit on a name tag for each major planet:

Mercury – very small and very close to the sun.  Mercury is a planet of extremes; the “daytime” side (facing the sun) is very hot, while the “nighttime” side (away from the sun) is very cold. 

Venus – HOT!  Venus is very hot and has active volcanos, quakes, and the accompanying scars covering its crust.

Earth – the perfect distance from the sun to support life; this planet is the only one that is known to have liquid water on the surface.

Mars – the red planet.  Mars is very similar to Earth, but without an atmosphere, it can’t hold on to its water very long.

Jupiter – the largest planet, a gas giant.  It is easily identified by the great red spot, visible in the picture below and through many observatory telescopes.

Saturn – also a gas giant.  Although it is often pictured with two or three rings around it, there are actually hundreds of these dust rings, along with regular gaps where no dust or moons can be seen.

Uranus – another gas giant.  Uranus gas is composed of water, ammonia, and methane.  The methane above the atmosphere makes it look bluish-green.

Neptune – the farthest gas giant, mostly hydrogen and helium, with enough methane to make it look blue to us.

How to remember the names and order of the planets?  Here’s a simple mnemonic to try:  My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Neptune.

Tune in tomorrow for pictures, videos, and talk about the latest imagery of our closest star — the Sun! 


Jupiter and Saturn, the gas giants, dwarf the smaller rocky and icy bodies of the solar system.  The smaller planets in the front row are, from left to right, Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and the dwarf planet Pluto. 

Resource of the day:  the planetary fact sheets at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s web site,

Planet Preschool
April 28, 2007, 11:32 pm
Filed under: meta

Welcome to Planet Preschool. 

There’s something about outer space that captures the imaginations of young and old alike … that can cause the most dedicated office worker to slip off into daydreams on launch days … and that can inspire even toddlers to upend their matchbox cars and count, “3, 2, 1, blast off!” as they send the cars up into the air like rockets.  Space travel is perhaps the grandest dream of the human race. 

Whether your dream ultimately is to gaze through a telescope on a clear night, to be greeted with new and exciting images when you sit down at your computer in the morning, to travel to the stars in a faster-than-light ship, or simply to enjoy a summer evening outside with your sweetheart, you have probably felt the pull of the night sky at one point or another in your life.

I know I have.

My infatuation with the night sky began at the age of three, when my mother and father took me along on a visit to Johnson Space Center in Texas.  I walked through mission control.  I climbed on (and in!) the Saturn V rocket upended on the grounds.  I wandered through and around the visitor’s center.  I stood stock-still at the Wall of Astronauts, studying their faces, and wondering if mine would ever be featured there. 

I noticed that there were no women astronauts.

My mother says that I asked her why, and she had no answer.  I asked my father, and he had no answer.  But they were good people, and very good parents, and they wrote the question out for me and we put it in the suggestion box together. 

Why are there no women astronauts?

As if NASA had never even considered the question.

Today, there are dozens of women astronauts.  There are hundreds of women astronomers.  There are thousands of women holding NASA grants and doing space research.

I was one of them.

Then, I had a baby.  I gave birth to a hungry, needy infant, and, all at once, I was catapulted into a new challenge, a world of feeding and loving and helping little children’s minds grow so that they too would one day look at me and ask, “Why?” 

I continued to work for many months, but now I am working from home and spending every waking minute with my little boys.  I love my life.  I love my work.  I also love talking about space, space science, engineering, and the challenges that I used to face every day in my work outside the home.  This blog is a place for me to talk about the wonderful new achievements that NASA researchers and others are making and announcing every day.  It likely will not be a breaking news source, but I will strive to make every post timely, relevant, and ultimately, something that you can use to share the excitement of space research with your children.

Because that, I think, is what it’s all about.  Inspiring the next generation of kids, so that they catch the excitement, work to prepare, and ultimately, carry on the dream of space exploration.

Welcome to Planet Preschool.