Flatbread, Ice Cream Sandwiches, and the Thrill of Discovery: High School Students and the Mars Rovers
A group of high school students has been lending NASA a hand with its two newest Mars rovers. Since January 2004, dozens of students from across the country have been jetting around Mission Control in California, setting up databases, analyzing data, processing information, naming rocks, and having the time of their lives.
The students are part of the Athena Student Intern Program (ASIP), sponsored by NASA and Cornell University, which has afforded 39 lucky high school students the opportunity to virtually explore Mars. Through ASIP, three high school students and one of their teachers are matched with a member of the Athena Payload Science Team (which runs the Mars Rovers). The students help the scientist process data, investigate interesting photographs, handle the press, and do some of the basic science needed to operate the rovers.
The program is NASA's latest , and possibly most exciting , initiative to fuel the next generation' interest in space.
The Student Teams
Teams were selected in early 2003 from applicants across the country, and came from high schools in Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. For the mission, each team performed a unique and necessary task for the Mars Rover science teams.
"One girl handled all the press for [Mars Rover Principle Investigator] Steve Squires during the landings," said Mary Mulvanerton, the Athena Science Team Coordinator. "That was a very big and very important job, since everyone from everywhere was calling him up for an interview!"
The teams spent time with their science mentors before the landing, preparing for their work on Mars. The students learned about the geology of Mars, the science and mechanics of the rovers, and the software they would be using to analyze data. Finally, each team spent one week at Mission Control in Pasadena during Rover Operations.
"It was great to watch them during the mission operations," said Mulvanerton. "There were ear-to-ear grins on every kid , and they just didn't stop!"
The Laguna-Acoma Team
Three of those grins came to mission control from a small community in New Mexico. The student science team from Laguna-Acoma High School, in Laguna, N.M., consisted of three extremely enthusiastic students. Brandon Herrera, a National Honor Society and Science Olympiad student; Mark Vallejos, high school junior and volunteer community firefighter; and Henry Vicente, the team's student science journalist, joined their teacher, Joe Aragon, on five months of Mars exploration.
Prior to the rovers' landings on Mars, the Laguna-Acoma team prepared for Mars by examining their own backyard. Accompanied by their science mentor, Dr. Larry Crumpler, the team visited Mount Taylor, near their homes in New Mexico, where they examined lava flows and collected rock samples.
Back at the lab, they identified the minerals in the rocks, and characterized their weathering conditions. The team worked with Crumpler and Aragon every week for five months prior to landing, learning how to examine rocks.
"Dr. Crumpler taught us all about lava flows," said Herrera. "We learned how to identify all the minerals, how the rocks were eroded, and all sorts of structures in the rocks, like vesicles where tiny pockets of gas exploded on eruption."
After several months of preparation, the team arrived at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California on January 18, in time for the Opportunity rover's landing , the third attempted rover landing in two months. The European Space Agency's Beagle 2 lander had failed to land just a few months before; the Spirit Rover, already on Mars, was not responding to NASA's calls; and the mood at JPL was tense.
"As Opportunity came down through the [Martian] atmosphere, it felt pretty exciting and stressful," said Vallejos. "They were doing a second-by-second update, and everyone was so quiet. It was nerve-racking. We didn't know if the rover would make it..."
"When it landed and the mission commander said everything was ok, everyone went crazy!" continued Mark. "Pictures were flooding in and the scientists were running to their computers! Everyone celebrated! Looking at the pictures, we were stunned ... just knowing that we were looking at another planet and we were among the first people to see them."
Mars and New Mexico: Rocks and Names
For one week, the team lived by Mars time. Daytime at Gusev Crater, the Opportunity rover's landing site, was nighttime in Pasadena, and the Laguna-Acoma team worked with the Mars rover scientists through the odd hours, a feat made easier by plenty of ice cream sandwiches.
As images from Opportunity came in, Herrera, Vallejos, and Vicente examined them with Crumpler and Aragon. They looked for the minerals they had learned, such as olivine and pyroxene, and tried to characterize the weathering.
"It was exciting!" said Herrera. "A lot of the rocks on Mars look just like the basalt rocks that we found. We looked at one rock and said That's olivine!' and then the Mossbauer instrument measured it, and it really was olivine!" (The Mossbauer spectrometer aboard the rovers measures iron content in rocks and can distinguish different iron minerals.)
"Dr. Crumpler pulled us aside and said, Hey, you guys knew before the science team could figure it out,'" said Vallejos. "That was pretty cool."
The team also watched the Spirit rover use its rock grinder on "Adirondack" , a tall pale rock at the Gusev Crater landing site. The rover ground away several centimeters of the rock's surface to expose an unweathered interior. Looking at the photos of a fresh Martian rock, the team again realized how similar it looked to Earth rocks.
"They looked almost the same," said Vallejos. "But you have to remember that it's hard to compare them. Here, we have rocks in our hand. There, we only have images and a robot's arm. It's a lot harder that way."
Herrera and Vallejos were assigned a section of the Spirit site, and spent hours counting and classifying all the rocks in 61.6 cm of Martian soil. "That might not seem very big," said Herrera. "But these are little rocks and pebbles! It took a long time!"
In addition to their 61.6 cm of Martian soil, the team set up a database of rock names for the Spirit site. There were many rocks, and the science team needed to be sure that no name was duplicated.
"The scientists were going name-crazy," said Vicente. "There were over 100 rocks named in just the week we were there. We had to ask every scientist whether they had named a rock, and then record it."
The Laguna-Acoma team named several rocks themselves. On January 19, while working on their rock distributions, they named a low, flat rock "Flatbread," a reference to a New Mexican delicacy. Later, the team named a bright white rock "Blanco," after the Spanish word for "white."
In addition to these, the Laguna-Acoma team suggested many names that the science team later used. "Laguna Hollow" at the Spirit rover site is named for one of the pueblos near the team's high school, where Herrera lives. "Acoma Rock," also at the Spirit site, is named for the pueblo where Vicente lives.
"Thanks to Dr. Crumpler and the science team, there are rocks on Mars named after our communities," said Vicente. "That is very special for us."
Athena Student Intern Program: http://athena.cornell.edu/educators/asip.html
Mars Exploration Rovers Homepage: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html