What the Mars Rover Opportunity taught us

15 years, covering 28 miles on Mars, the Mars Rover Opportunity came to the end of its mission this week. Basically it lost contact with Earth last June; NASA had to finally call it Mission Accomplished. The gutsy little Rover was part of a tag team (Opportunity landed on Jan. 24, 2004, Spirit had arrived a few weeks earlier.)

Gutsy doesn’t even start to describe the robot that refused to quit. Here’s how Jet propulsion Lab described it in a few bullet points.

  • Set a one-day Mars driving record March 20, 2005, when it traveled 721 feet (220 meters).
  • Returned more than 217,000 images, including 15 360-degree color panoramas.
  • Exposed the surfaces of 52 rocks to reveal fresh mineral surfaces for analysis and cleared 72 additional targets with a brush to prepare them for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager.
  • Found hematite, a mineral that forms in water, at its landing site.
  • Discovered strong indications at Endeavour Crater of the action of ancient water similar to the drinkable water of a pond or lake on Earth.

Opportunity and it’s cohorts explored the theory that Mars could be (or support) a “habitable environment” Its longevity, and ability to literally dust off its problems showed future explorers that this is possible. It’s very landing inspired future landing innovations to distant planets, while its photographing of blueberry-like rocks gave researchers back on Earth an idea of what hematite means to us.

This spunky robot also has a delightful design. For a few years I would borrow a wheel of (a replica of) its sister bot, Spirit, from the Mars lab at ASU, and display it in my class. It definitely inspired me to take robotics more seriously.

When space exploration looks like Sci-Fi

One part Star Wars and two parts Arthur C. Clarke, one of the new things being tested in space is something called ‘Spheres.’

It is the name for three small “free-flying satellites” on board the International Space Station. Students in middle school have been getting involved in using SPHERES (which is an acronym for ‘Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellite’) in micro-gravity experiments. One of the goals of SPHERES has been to see if these small satellites could one day solve the problem of space debris, apart from other future space missions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arthur C Clarke was the earliest proponent of communication satellites. His 1945 Proposal was on Geostationary Satellite Communications. This March would be the 10th anniversary of Clarke’s passing.

Spacesuits – Designed by kids

It always surprises us teachers when students do something outside the guidelines. It’s easy to preach the outside-the-box cliche, but what happens when they color outside the lines – defy the rubric, so to speak?

I asked one of our presenters to help judge the entries from students. The contest challenge was to ‘design a spacesuit of the future.‘ No other limitations except nothing could be bought from a store. The scientist who designs satellites for a living, had a hard time picking 3 entries. So did my Specials team.

Some students interpreted the ‘rules’ and used recycled material. One took the whole astronaut approach, with a  diorama. Some focused on the breathing apparatus – after,all they do hear that the air on Mars is not exactly fit for consumption! So here’s what we got. The 1st place went to an entry made entirely of water bottles and tin foil – to the right of the spacesuit (which was the prize.)

Space Day at Salt River Elementary

So today is Space Day! Our 6th year, Space Day is turning out to be quite an event!

This year we have two keynote addresses from NASA scientists:

Dr. Jim Rice,  Co-Investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover Project. His work has involved mission experience working on the Mars Odyssey Orbiter and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Projects, the Mars landing site selection for every NASA Mars Mission since Mars Pathfinder in 1995. he is currently involved in manned missions back to the Moon and Mars.

Dr. Ashwin Vasavada, is the Deputy Project Scientist working on the mission of the Mars Curiosity rover. He helps lead an international team of over 400 scientists. His work has involved geologic studies of Mars with regard to surface properties, volatility, and climate history.

Other sessions will be specific to grade levels:

  • Robots in space
  • Planets & Liquid Nitrogen
  • Food in Space
  • Moon rocks
  • Rockets and launches
  • Satellites Communication in Space
  • Small-scale satellites

We could not have done this without the support of:

  • Challenger Space Center
  • NASA
  • Orbital ATK
  • ASU – School of Earth and Space exploration
  • ASU – Collective Systems Laboratory
  • SpaceTrex

 

An NASA observatory, a Nobel Prize, and an asteroid named after him. Quite a guy!

Looking into Google’s celebration of the birthday of astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, I was fascinated by the man’s career that spanned from home schooling in Madras, to Cambridge, to Chicago.

Carl Sagan was his student! His uncle also had won a Nobel!

Chandrasekhar’s propensity for research was unstoppable – he apparently investigated a fresh field of study each decade!  His Nobel Prize for Physics came in 1983.

As for the observatory, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory is the third of NASA’s ‘great observatories’ –after Hubble and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

 

Plans afoot for Space Day 2017

Just announced plans for Space Day at Salt River Elementary – our 6th year!

  • This year’s focus is on the Moon, rockery and spacesuits.
  • The student competition is to design a future spacesuit 
  • Each class in every grade level will experience one facet of space science
  • When: Oct. 26th, 2017    Time: 8:30 am – 3:00 pm

As the event grows bigger each year, my thanks to those who will be supporting it:

  • Orbital ATK, Arizona
  • Jet Propulsion Lab, California
  • Autonomous Collective Systems Lab, at ASU
  • SpaceTRex, University of Arizona
  • Challenger Space Center, Arizona

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


 

 

Space science is a fascinating field, and gives us who focus on STEM an ability to widen the lens. Consider some of the recent developments

 

Thanks, Cassini for all your work. And catching our ‘wave’

Cassini, the robotic spacecraft that traveled for nineteen years (and some 948,149,234 miles), came to a sad end today, as it flew into Saturn. It’s demise was planned, however for good reasons.

It was one ambitious mission in 1997. A knowledge excursion to parts of our solar system that were previously beyond our reach. Through Cassini, we learned about and discovered more of Saturn’s moons, we got to see the make up of its spectacular rings, and learned that the gas planet does have its own hurricanes. It carried a probe, which it landed on one of Saturns’ moons using a parachute. It beamed back data through NASA’s Deep Space Network, and as you’d expect from any celebrity now, Cassini had its own Twitter handle, @CassiniSaturn.

Cassini’s full name is Cassini–Huygens, being born of a project collaboration between three space agencies from the US, Italy, and Europe.

Cassini was used for interesting aerial photo-op. It took place on July 19, 2013. The folks who programmed Cassini turned the spacecraft back toward Earth to take a picture of earthlings waving at it. The images were then beamed back and stitched together in a huge mosaic of the Saturn system, itself! More about that event, here.

 

Two flavors of ‘Ice Cream’ to the Space Station!

The Dragon capsule delivered several technologies and experiments (6,4000 pounds of it) to the International Space Station. But it also delivered ice cream to the astronauts on board. So what’s a few scoops, for those folks who travel at 17,000 miles an hour for several months!

Also, in a geeky twist, it is also delivering another flavor, so to speak: ‘ISS-CREAM‘ – the acronym for ISS Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass. It is a balloon-borne instrument that “measures the charges of cosmic rays ranging from hydrogen up through iron nuclei, over a broad energy range.” Clear as mud. (a balloon carrying ISS-CREAM) But very cool, huh?

As for the docking, as I mentioned in a previous post about the robotic arm and the maneuver, it is pretty cool! Humans need robots – and some ice cream now and then.