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The Perfect Opportunity Arises
Two days of all-out Mars!
by Stephanie Wong
with contributions from Bonnie Walters and Michelle Mock

Imagiverse team members Michelle Mock, Stephanie Wong and Bonnie Walters vacationed the only way that Mars educators know how to -- they went to a Mars educator workshop.  More precisely, they went to the Roving the Red Planet Mars Exploration Rover Workshop in Florida, sponsored by Arizona State University, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cornell University and NASA.

Why go to a Mars workshop?  To learn about the planet we humans are exploring, to bring the excitement of Mars exploration to the classroom, and of course, to meet the real rock stars!  It was a spectacular two days, brimming with activities and presentations by members of the scientific, engineering and pedagogical community.

Coinciding with the scheduled launch of MER-B, the workshop was a two-day affair in Cocoa Beach, hosted by ASU Mars K-12 Outreach Program Coordinator Sheri Klug, designed to instruct and inspire educators on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission.  It began bright and early one hot and muggy day in the Enterprise ballroom, when educators of all sorts began filing into the room.  Michelle and Bonnie (and especially Michelle) were veterans of such Mars workshops, but this was my first workshop.  I had heard of the ASU workshops before, about the field trips they had and about the Mars Odyssey launch workshop in April 2001, so I knew this one would be memorable.  I did not recognize any of the teachers, although there were a few individuals about the room who were of NASA fame.  The Mars mission team was right there!

Orlando FigueroaSheri introduced the first speakers, Orlando Figueroa and Firouz Naderi, Director of the Mars Exploration Program Office at NASA HQ and Manager of the Mars Program Office at JPL, respectively.  Then, Mars scientist Jim Garvin gave the first scientific presentation about the planet's geology.  Mars is a planet of extremes.  Earth's giant landforms are dwarfed by what is seen on Mars.  For example, as Jim noted, Mars has Hellas Basin, the largest "hole" in the solar system.  This basin is a huge impact crater with a diameter of 2000 km and a depth of 7 km!  He described several features on the surface as seen from the Mars Orbiter Camera onboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft, an orbiter that has transformed our view of the planet.

Cathy WeitzAnother scientist, Cathy Weitz, gave the educators an overview of NASA's missions to Mars.  She covered, in detail, the Mars Exploration science strategy to "search for water".  She ended her talk with the four 2007 Scout missions to be selected in August.  On August 4th, it was announced that the "Phoenix" lander had been chosen.

Steve Squyres, the Principal Investigator for the Athena Science Payload, gave the audience a special treat by showing us the new HDTV version of Dan Maas' MER mission animation.  This animation, depicting the launch, cruise, landing and surface operations of the rovers, is a detailed piece of scientifically-accurate graphics work.  It awed the crowd as the lander airbags bounced in tandem to the timpani from Holst's "The Planets: Mars".  Now that was a dramatic Mars movie.

Jim Bell, Steve Squyres, Bill NyePlanetary scientist Jim Bell and well-known "Science Guy", Bill Nye, went into detail about the sundials that are mounted on the rovers.  Originally, the coloured platforms were only to serve the purpose of being a colour calibrator for the Pancam, but Bill came up with the idea of adding a knobbed stick in the middle of it to track the position of the sun.  A little model of that sundial and some other unique specimens were on display.  The word, "Mars", was written in 17 languages on the outside of the dial.  Bill had an acronym -- PBJ "passion, beauty and joy" -- which he thought was what planetary science could instill in children.

Even the lunches were well-spent.  At each table was at least one Mars expert.  Between munches, the educators wrote up brief biographies of their expert and presented them to everyone else.  At our table was Dick Morris, a planetary scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  Michelle questioned him and compiled a list of facts which Bonnie used to introduce him.  Dick is co-investigator of the Mössbauer Spectrometer on Mars Express, the MER Athena Science Payload, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, among other things.

Classroom Activities

Interspersed between the scientific presentations were hands-on classroom activities along with other education-related Mars material.  Many of the activities were fun, provoking one's mind into thinking like an engineer or scientist:

"Marsbound"– Given a certain budget for a Mars mission, each group of 4 or 5 had to choose which mission, methods and scientific instruments to use from a deck of marked cards.  Each card had a dollar amount assigned.  The requirement was to decide all of the above AND stay within budget.  It would be a very good activity for future scientists, engineers and managers to work together to achieve both science and engineering goals while staying within budget.  Although reducing the mission planning process to a set of playing cards, this game wasn't an easy task.  My team thought a bit too "big", going for a rover rather than an orbiter, and went $100 million overbudget, and not to mention, having a booster failure.

"Astronomy with a Stick" - Here was a wonderful way to bring indirect observations of the Sun and seasons into the classroom at the elementary level.  Sundials come in all shapes and forms.  They can even be placed on walls.  While sundials can be as wacky as imaginable, the educators made a simple version out of card stock and straws.

"Rover Quest" - In this activity we were given 5 photos of essentially the same landscape from various angles and distances.  A picture may be worth a 1000 words, but it doesn't tell you much about depth.  Given various pictures of a landscape, can you tell which one gives a closer view than the other?  We were to put the pictures in order from farthest to nearest.  Because a plain landscape, such as Mars, has no identifiable markers, it is difficult to tell how far things really are.  With a 1-D image, a small rock close-up may look like a large boulder off in the distance, so how is our depth perception?  How can we tell for sure?  And given that we can tell, which would be the best site to visit?  And that was the crux of the matter at hand.  The two teams at my table were singled-out since both of our groups independently chose the image no other group chose.  While the other images had large interesting features like hills and cliffs, we went for the more subtle features, such as the coloured deposits on what appeared to be a flat floodplain.  It was very gratifying to give our rationale to the others.

"The Egg-Drop Experiment" - The airbag landing method, proven by Mars Pathfinder, and adopted by MER, was approximated by balloons, cardboard, string, tape and newspaper.  Brace for impact!!!It was a primitive, yet effective demonstration of keeping small objects, like an egg, from being damaged from a 2-storey drop.  A tetrahedron box was created from card stock in which an egg was placed.  Four balloons were attached to the sides, and a string tether attached the contraption to some newspaper parachutes.  And as if a bunch of Mars-crazed teachers weren't spectacle enough, they all filed up to the second floor of a hotel, and proceeded to drop the "landers" from the balcony, right in front of the lobby.  The experiment was successful, except for the team who "pre-broke" their egg.

"Radial Model of the Solar System" - This model provided an easy way to visualize planetary orbits with some string.  Make an apparatus that can be a pivot (a nail in the ground would be enough.  Attach different coloured yarn of scale radius to the planets' orbits.  The angles of the planets with respect to each other orbiting the "sun" can be easily found out via the web or an astronomy almanac.  The educators were once again outside in front of the lobby playing around.  As they held the strings and moved about the sun pivot, they learned about oppositions, conjunctions and what time of day a planet would rise in their planetary sky.  I suggest doing an outer planet model by adding an extra pivot for the orbit of Pluto.  With two axes and the proper scaling, one can simulate the elliptical orbit as it passes the orbit of Neptune.

"Mars Landing Site Activity" - The educators were given a large orbital view of a region of Mars.  They were asked to decide whether there would be a good area to land.  The tricky part is finding a place that would fit a landing ellipse.  After all, the bouncing Mars lander cannot make a pinpoint landing and needs a fairly large area that's safe all around.

"Sun Tracking Hemisphere Kit" - This activity was to introduce the Sun's motion across the sky to elementary school students.  Using a plastic hemisphere over a cross-haired cardboard sheet and marking the position of the sun on the sphere every few minutes, one can track the motion of the sun over a day.  Doing the same experiment a few weeks later, it can be seen that the sun traces out a different path in the sky.

Mars Student Imaging Project

Astronomy with a Stick

Ray Arvidson, John Grant and John Callas talked about the engineering aspects of the mission, such as mission operations, rover technology, the search for the right landing site, and the technique for landing on Mars.Gusev Crater

There were detailed presentations about the final landing site selections for the rovers.  The two major proponents of the winning landing sites were Nathalie Cabrol and Phil Christensen, individuals who were passionately enthusiastic about exploring the planet.

Nathalie CabrolNathalie supported Gusev, a 3.9 billion year old crater in the southern hemisphere near the equator.  There is evidence that the crater was once a lake, this furthered by a channel (Ma'adim Vallis) flowing into it.  There might be a rich layer of sediment up to 10 m deep in this region.  An ideal site for the search for water and layered deposits, Gusev holds many secrets for MER-A to unravel.  Spirit's landing ellipse is located in the deepest part of the crater.

Phil ChristensenHematite has been a popular word in the Mars science community since Mars Global Surveyor discovered the coarse-grained version of this mineral in Terra Meridiani.  Since then, the landing site, Meridiani Planum, has been a favourite of planetary scientists.  And so, too, it is for none other than Phil Christensen, who will be sending his 4th and 5th science instruments to Mars.  Phil contributed Imagiverse's first interview, and I've also read a number of his published articles, so I was particularly interested in what he had to say.  Phil remarked about Meridiani's location, 0°, 0°, that "it's like this beacon sitting there."  Coarse-grained hematite usually forms in the presence of water and thus Meridiani is an excellent place to look for water, and possibly life.  However, Phil said that there were many other interesting things to look for at that location besides the hematite.

Dave Lavery, John Callas, Matt Golombek, Wendy Calvin, Doug Ming

A panel discussion occupied the lunch period the second day, as Dave Lavery, John Callas, Matt Golombek, Wendy Calvin and Doug Ming did their presentations.  Dave, the Program Executive for Solar System Exploration at NASA HQ, brought a LEGO model of the MER rover, a fairly accurate toy about the size of a small printer.  It was a popular item with the educators as they lined up to look at the little vehicle.  John is a research scientist that develops space science intrumentation, teaches college math and is Science Manager for the MER mission.  Matt was mission scientist for Mars Pathfinder and co-chair of the MER landing site selection committee, and is an Athena science team member.  His enthusiasm about Mars really showed as he talked about the landing site selection and exploring Mars.  Wendy is a geophysicist specializing in remote sensing and infrared spectroscopy, working with both data from the Mariner/Viking and current missions.  Doug was an example of the diversity of the science teams.  He is an agronomist and agriculturalist by trade.  But now, he is putting his knowledge to unearthly matters, seeing how plants consumable by future astronauts would fare if grown in the Martian soil.

What do meteorites from Mars tell us?  Geologist Joy Crisp spoke about the 28 meteorites that were found on Earth.  Through isotopic testing, we know that these small bits of rock strewn around the world are indeed from Mars.  Although there are not that many of them, these are the only samples we have from the Red Planet until a sample return mission is launched.  Therefore, these precious pieces of rock are invaluable to Martian studies.

Towards the end of the workshop, the audience was delighted with a talk by Hugh Kieffer, a planetary geologist who has been with the Mars program since the Mariner days.  His reflections on the past gave a retrospect of where the current MER rover mission evolved from.  He also gave advice on how humans must think outside of our own terrestrial "box" in order to understand what we see out on Mars.  After all, the universe isn't geocentric.

It began and ended with a speech by Orlando Figueroa, and the workshop had reached its end.  And that was it.  Without question, everyone had learned a lot.  I learned a lot.  The Mars vacation came to a close, but the memories will never be forgotten.  I was surprised to realize that a number of educators had remembered me from the "old days".  I could now also put faces to the names I have seen.  It was a unique experience.  I am really in Mars education!  Funny thing to happen to a person who never wanted to be a grade school teacher.

MER pin and hematite on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean

The only downside to the entire event was that all three of us missed the launch of MER-B, due to various delays.  However, the perfect opportunity did arise, and we are glad that Opportunity is on its way to Mars.

Thanks to Sheri Klug, Paige Valderrama, Barnaby Wasson, Keith Watt, and Meg Hufford for organizing this fantastic workshop.

Send your questions about Mars to Imagiverse - Ask The Expert.

- 30 August 2003


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Last Updated:
30 August 2003

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