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  • Students: Design a drone/robot combo for a virtual moon landing, and win a free trip to NASA | The Seattle Times
    Monday, February 11, 2019
    A national competition sponsored by NASA and run by a University of Washington educational consortium is aimed at inspiring students to think about science, space travel and the history of America's journeys to the moon. Robert Winglee, director of the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline and a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, is quoted. Read More
  • The real Seattle Freeze: 'Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline' explores the compelling topography of the Puget Sound landscape | The Seattle Times
    Thursday, January 31, 2019
    Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll's new book "Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline" dives into the geological history of the Seattle area's landscape. David Montgomery, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is featured. Read More
  • Kids get a chance to re-enact Apollo 11 moon landing with robots | GeekWire
    Thursday, January 31, 2019
    Fifty years after the first Apollo moon landing, students from across the country will get a chance to re-enact the feat with drones and robots, thanks to an educational challenge orchestrated by NASA and the UW's Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline. Robert Winglee, director of the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline and a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, is quoted. Read More
  • UW-based group launches national challenge to recreate first moon landing -- with drones and Lego robots
    Wednesday, January 30, 2019
    robot with lunar lander

    A Lego Mindstorms robot, with a plastic astronaut strapped to the front, approaches the lunar lander. Student teams will program the robot to explore the moon’s surface.Dennis Wise/University of Washington

    On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission landed the first two people on the surface of the moon. NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first steps and famously proclaimed: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

    This July will mark the 50th anniversary of that landmark event. The University of Washington’s Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline is calling on the next generation of astronauts and aeronautical engineers to recreate the historic event using modern technology.

    blue drone dangling orange object

    A flying drone carries a lunar lander above a map of the moon’s surface. The landing spot is the actual site of the Apollo 11 landing. Other craters that teams will explore are circled in red.Dennis Wise/University of Washington

    At a kickoff event Jan. 30 in Kent, Washington, the organizers will officially open the Apollo 50 Next Giant Leap Student Challenge, known for short as the ANGLeS Challenge, in collaboration with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

    “This is a truly interdisciplinary challenge, involving computer programming, robotics, remote sensing and design,” said Robert Winglee, director of the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline and a UW professor of Earth and space sciences. “We’re calling it the ‘next giant leap.'”

    Teams of students from fifth to 12th grades are invited to participate. Each team will build a replica of the lunar lander and use a remote-controlled drone to land it on an 8-by-12-foot map of the moon’s surface. Students will modify and program a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot to then explore the lunar surface and bring back a rock sample.

    High school students will also use the drone to retrieve the team’s lunar module and bring it back to the starting line.

    As in a real-life expedition, teams will also create a mission patch, design uniforms, do event outreach and leave a “culturally significant artifact” on the lunar surface.

    Organizers emphasize that it’s a challenge, not a contest. Teams will be judged on multiple criteria and can earn various prizes. No experience is required; registration opens Feb. 1.

    Students with robots and rocks in foreground

    These University of Washington students demonstrate the challenge involving a lunar lander (left, orange) a Lego Mindstorms robot (center) and rock samples (right).Dennis Wise/University of Washington

    The challenge has no entry fee. A $500 kit contains subsidized equipment including the drone and Lego Mindstorms parts, and loaner equipment will be available to schools that qualify. Accommodation at the UW campus will be covered for teams at schools with more than 50 percent subsidized lunches. The organizers will also help all teams with fundraising, and can provide drone and robotics training on request.

    “An important aspect of the project is to provide access to NASA science and technology for many of the underserved and underrepresented communities across the U.S.,” Winglee said.

    The ANGLeS Challenge website

    UW News: “NASA-funded consortium to support science education in Washington, Oregon and Montana” - Feb. 2016

    UW News: “Native American youth launch high-altitude balloons for unique perspective on solar eclipse” - Aug. 2017

    Teams must include one adult to act as the coach, and a five-member “flight crew” all under the age of 18 who will be on the challenge field to pilot the drone, operate the robot, identify rock samples and guide the pilot. Other members of the mixed-grade teams will help with building equipment, designing logos and other off-the-field tasks.

    The Northwest challenge will be held in July in Seattle and is open to teams from schools or recognized informal education programs in Washington. Twelve other NASA regional hubs will also host events the week of July 15-20. The winning team from each location will win a trip in early August to visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

    The initial sponsors of the national challenge are drone maker Force1, NASA, the Museum of Flight, Pacific Science Center and the City of Kent. Organizers are seeking more event sponsors, and volunteers to help advise teams and host the challenges.

    The UW-based Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline consortium was created in 2016 with a $10 million cooperative agreement that established a “NASA hub” in the Pacific Northwest. The group conducts teacher trainings, especially in underrepresented communities; its past events include a NASA Pow Wow in Ellensburg and a NASA Fiesta in Seattle.

    “Smaller-scale, related STEM efforts in recent years have shown that student participants have increasing interest and skill in doing STEM activities,” Winglee said. “The Apollo effort seeks to expand this effort on a national scale.”


    More information is at The challenge email is


    Members of the media can contact communications officer Chris Wallish at 206-221-7743 or

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  • Soil health: The next agricultural revolution | EcoWatch
    Monday, January 14, 2019
    "By adopting three practices -- no-till farming, cover crops and diverse crop rotations -- farmers worldwide can help preserve the world's soils, feed a growing global population, mitigate climate change and protect the environment," writes Ken Roseboro for EcoWatch. David Montgomery, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Earth's magnetic pole is wandering, lurching toward Siberia | Live Science
    Monday, January 14, 2019
    Earth's north magnetic pole is on the move, unpredictably lurching away from the Canadian Arctic and toward Siberia. Ronald Merrill, an emeritus professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Chlorate-rich soil may help us find liquid water on Mars | Space
    Thursday, January 3, 2019
    If liquid water exists on the surface of Mars, it is most likely in the form of a briny mixture with magnesium chlorate salts, according to new experiments done by UW researchers. Jonathan Toner and David Catling, both of the UW Department of Earth and Space Sciences, are quoted. Read More
  • Scientists claim progress in earthquake prediction | The Washington Post
    Monday, December 17, 2018
    The Big One -- a catastrophic earthquake -- is coming. When? Where? How violent and destructive will it be? Scientists would love to be able to answer these questions, but they've been humbled by earthquakes too often. Ken Creager, a professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • UW glaciologist gets first look at NASA's new measurements of ice sheet elevation
    Friday, December 14, 2018
    Antarctic map and blue line

    The horizontal blue line is the travel path for ICESat-2. The lower line shows some of its first measurements. This satellite can capture steep terrain and measure elevation much more precisely than its predecessor.NASA's Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens

    Less than three months into its mission, NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, is already exceeding scientists' expectations, according to the space agency. The satellite is measuring the height of sea ice to within an inch, tracing the terrain of previously unmapped Antarctic valleys and measuring other interesting features in our planet’s elevation.


    Ben Smith

    Benjamin Smith, a glaciologist with the University of Washington and member of the ICESat-2 science team, shared the first look at the satellite's performance at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting Dec. 11 in Washington, D.C.

    Mountain valleys “have been really difficult targets for altimeters in the past, which have often used radar instead of lasers and they tend to show you just a big lump where the mountains are,” Smith told the BBC. “But we can see very steeply sloping surfaces; we can see valley glaciers; we’ll be able to make out very small details.”

    With each pass of the ICESat-2 satellite, the mission is adding to the data sets that track Earth's rapidly changing ice. Researchers are ready to use the information to study sea level rise resulting from melting ice sheets and glaciers, and to improve sea ice and climate forecasts.

    Watch Smith at the AGU press conference

    Hear Smith talk about ICESat-2

    In topographic maps of the Transantarctic Mountains, which divide east and west Antarctica, there are places where other satellites cannot see, Smith said. Some instruments don't orbit that far south, while others only pick up large features or the highest points and so miss minor peaks and valleys. Since launching ICESat-2, in the past three months scientists have started to fill in those details.

    "It's spectacular terrain," Smith said. “We're able to measure slopes that are steeper than 45 degrees, and maybe even more, all through this mountain range."

    As ICESat-2 orbits over Antarctica, the photons reflect from the surface and show high ice plateaus, crevasses in the ice 65 feet (20 meters) deep, and the sharp edges of ice shelves dropping into the ocean. These first measurements can help fill in the gaps of Antarctic maps, Smith said, but the key science of the ICESat-2 mission is yet to come. As researchers refine knowledge of where the instrument is pointing, they can start to measure the rise or fall of ice sheets and glaciers.

    Early data suggest that Antarctica’s Dotson ice shelf has lost more than 390 feet (120 meters) in thickness since 2003, Smith told the Associated Press.

    "Very soon, we'll have measurements that we can compare to older measurements of surface elevation," Smith said. "And after the satellite's been up for a year, we'll start to be able to watch the ice sheets change over the seasons."

    Mission managers expect to release the data to the public in early 2019.

    The first ICESat satellite operated between 2003 and 2009. The more sophisticated ICESat-2 launched Sept. 15, 2018, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Its laser instrument, called ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System), sends pulses of light to Earth. The instrument then times, to within a billionth of a second, how long it takes individual photons to return to the satellite. ATLAS has fired its laser more than 50 billion times since going live Sept. 30, and all the metrics from the instrument show it is working as it should, NASA scientists say. IceBridge, an aircraft-based NASA campaign, operated between the two satellite missions.


    For more information, contact Smith at or 206-616-9176.

    Adapted from a NASA feature article.

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  • Ancient whale named for UW paleontologist Elizabeth Nesbitt
    Monday, December 10, 2018

    A newly discovered species of whale -- found preserved in ancient rock on the Oregon coast -- has been named for a University of Washington paleontologist.

    person with bones

    Elizabeth Nesbitt with some of the whale fossils in the Burke Museum’s collection.University of Washington

    “It’s a tremendous honor,” said Elizabeth Nesbitt, who is curator of invertebrate paleontology and micropaleontology at the Burke Museum and an associate professor in the UW’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences.

    Maiabalaena nesbittae lived about 33 million years ago and was described in a Nov. 29 study published in Current Biology by researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

    The genus portion of the name combines “balaena,” the Latin word for whale, and “maia” meaning mother, because this species, that had neither teeth nor baleen, is the intermediate stage between modern, filter-feeding baleen whales and their toothed whale ancestors. The Smithsonian paleontologists concluded that this whale used suction to pull fish or squid into its mouth.

    While Nesbitt’s research is mostly on smaller fossils of marine animals without backbones, she was instrumental in figuring out the age of Washington and Oregon rocks that the marine mammal fossils are found in. In January, Nesbitt published a paper about the ages of the geologic units in Washington and Oregon that are younger than 50 million years old.

    “I use the fossils, mostly different types of clams and snails, to tell geologic time,” Nesbitt said. “Any one species, or any group of species of fossil, lives for a certain period of time. Then when they die, they’re gone. You’re never going to see those guys again, thus each group characterizes a geologic time span,” Nesbitt said.

    She compares the fossil assemblages from the Pacific Northwest with those in other parts of the world to pin down dates. Dating rocks is especially tricky in the Pacific Northwest, she said, which is isolated from other land masses and geologically complex.

    “If you go to the Gulf Coast, everything’s in nice layers. Here, because of plate tectonics, because of the Olympics and the Cascades, everything is tilted, folded and out of sequence. And the other problem in the western Pacific Northwest is dense vegetation covering the rock outcrops. So the dating is much more complicated here than other places in the world,” Nesbitt said.

    Another challenge in the dating for the new species, she added, was the rock samples attached to the fossil were just small slivers.

    drawing of whale

    An artistic reconstruction of a mother and calf of Maiabalaena nesbittae nursing offshore of Oregon during the Oligocene, about 33 million years ago.Alex Boersma

    The fossil of the M. nesbittae had been collected in Oregon in the 1970s and sent to the Smithsonian. It wasn’t until lead author Carlos Mauricio Peredo, a doctoral student at George Mason University and predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian, was investigating very early marine mammals that he realized this specimen’s potential evolutionary importance, Nesbitt said.

    The M. nesbittae was likely the size of a dolphin. Researchers do not know how widely it roamed. It just happens that the Pacific Northwest is one of the best places in the world -- along with Japan and New Zealand -- to find fossils of whales.

    “First of all, we have the rocks of the right age, from around the 30-million-year-old time period in which there was an absolute explosion of whales of different types,” Nesbitt said.

    “Secondly, when these sediments were deposited the water was deep. So the deeper the water the better chance you have of preserving the fossils -- when these rocks were collected they’re essentially sitting in concrete. It takes an incredible amount of time to prepare them.”

    Over the course of her career, Nesbitt has explored almost every part of the coast in Washington and Oregon. At this point in her career, she does less fieldwork, since many of the fossils are found on steep cliff faces. But she recently collected whale fossils on Vancouver Island with Nicholas Pyenson, an affiliate curator at the Burke Museum and a co-author on the Current Biology paper.

    Nesbitt is also involved in an ongoing project with the Washington Department of Ecology studying modern-day marine microorganisms, from the mid-1990s to today, to learn about changes in Puget Sound ecology.

    Nesbitt encourages people in the Seattle area to explore the fossil whales on display at the Burke Museum, many of which were collected by Burke research associate James Goedert and prepared by staff member Bruce Crowley.

    As for the new whale, the authors write that “the specific epithet nesbittae honors Dr. Elizabeth Nesbitt, for her lifetime of contribution to the paleontology of the Pacific Northwest and her mentorship and collegiality at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture."


    For more information, contact Nesbitt at or 206-543-5949.

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