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Jet Propulsion Laboratory-JPL (Carol Cao)

Reviewed by: Carol Cao, Biology, Chemistry, Health and Pre-Calculus Teacher, Summit View School.

General Information
Cost: FREE
9:30am to 12:00pm or 1:00pm to 3:30pm


Jet Propulsion Laboratory
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109-8099


Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. The facility is headquartered in the city of Pasadena [1] on the border of La Cañada Flintridge and Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory's primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA's Deep Space Network.

Among the Laboratory's current projects are the Cassini–Huygens mission to Saturn, the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

JPL's Space Flight Operations Facility and Twenty-Five-Foot Space Simulator are designated National Historic Landmarks.


JPL traces its beginnings to 1936 in the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) when the first set of rocket experiments were carried out in the Arroyo Seco. Caltech graduate students Frank Malina, Weld Arnold, Apollo M. O. Smith, and Tsien Hsue-shen, along with Jack Parsons and Edward Forman, tested a small, alcohol fueled motor to gather data for Malina's graduate thesis. Malina's thesis advisor was aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, who eventually arranged for U.S. Army financial support for this "GALCIT Rocket Project" in 1939. In 1941, Malina, Parsons, Forman, Martin Summerfield, and pilot Homer Bushey demonstrated the first JATO rockets to the Army. In 1943, von Kármán, Malina, Parsons, and Forman established the Aerojet Corporation to manufacture JATO motors. The project took on the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory in November 1943 formally becoming an Army facility operated under contract by the university.

During JPL's Army years, the Laboratory developed two deployed weapon systems, the MGM-5 Corporal and MGM-29 Sergeant intermediate range ballistic missiles. These missiles were the first US ballistic missiles developed at JPL.It also developed a number of other weapons system prototypes, such as the Loki anti-aircraft missile system, and the forerunner of the Aerobee sounding rocket. At various times, it carried out rocket testing at the White Sands Proving Ground, Edwards Air Force Base, and Goldstone, California. A lunar lander was also developed in 1938-39 which influenced design of the Apollo Lunar Module in the 1960s.

In 1954, JPL teamed up with Wernher von Braun’s rocketeers at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, to propose orbiting a satellite during the International Geophysical Year. The team lost that proposal to Project Vanguard, and instead embarked on a classified project to demonstrate ablative re-entry technology using a Jupiter-C rocket. They carried out three successful sub-orbital flights in 1956 and 1957. Using a spare Jupiter-C, the two organizations then launched America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, on February 1, 1958.

JPL was transferred to NASA after it was founded in October 1958, becoming the agency’s primary planetary spacecraft center. JPL engineers designed and operated Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon that prepared the way for Apollo. JPL also led the way in interplanetary exploration with the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury.

JPL was early to offer employment opportunities to women mathematicians. In the 1940s and 1950s, using mechanical calculators, women in an all-female computations group performed trajectory calculations.In 1961, JPL hired their first woman engineer to work along side male engineers as part of the Ranger and Mariner mission tracking teams.

Rocket landscaping

JPL has been recognized four times by the Space Foundation: with the Douglas S. Morrow Public Outreach Award, which is given annually to an individual or organization that has made significant contributions to public awareness of space programs, in 1998; and with the John L. "Jack" Swigert, Jr., Award for Space Exploration on three occasions – in 2009 (as part of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander Team), 2006 and 2005.

  • A physics teacher would benefit visiting JPL to look at the physics of making Mars Landers and the physics behind how they launch satellites, probes, etc. into space.
  • A chemistry teacher would benefit visiting JPL because students can discover the different types of gases on various planets and moons, and what the space program is trying to test on Mars.
  • An Astronomy teacher would benefit visiting JPL for too many reasons to list.  It's amazing!
Science Concepts Addressed
  • Mars Rover
  • Launches
  • Solar System
  • Mars Surfaces and atmosphere
  • Ozone depletion and global warming
Study Guide
During the fieldtrip, answer the following questions to the best of your ability:

1. What is JPL?
2. How was JPL formed?
3. During the introductory video, choose 2 things you watch that you liked and explain why you picked these?  How do the concepts relate to Chemistry class?
4. In the Mars Science Laboratory Project Building, what is the name of the new lander?
5. How many landers did they make?
6. Why did they make only that many?
7. Describe the roles of each of the new landers?
8. How do they run tests on the landers?
9. In mission control, state the 3 locations in the world where there are satellites?
10. Why where these three locations selected?
11. How long will it take the new Mars Rover to reach Mars?
12. How many cameras are on the Rover? How many instruments?
13. How long will the new mission in Mars last?
14. Describe the new battery on Curiosity?  How is it different from the previous Rovers?



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