July 18, 2003
Gusev crater, destination of Mars Rover Spirit. The scene contains wispy dark streaks that probably arise from the removal by wind of a layer of bright dust.
Mars Exploration site
While the ultimate field trip might someday be an actual journey to Mars, NASA is doing the next best thing - giving high school teams the opportunity to explore Mars by working on specific research projects during the Mars Exploration Rover missions, set to land on the red planet in January 2004.
Two programs designed to involve students in exploration and discovery enable high school teams to experience a space mission from launch through landing. Teams from 13 schools are participating in the Athena Student Interns program. The Mars Exploration Student Data Team has 51 participating schools. Advance studies will prepare the students for participating in the mission when the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, begin exploring Mars.
Participants in the Athena Student Interns program will work with mentors from the Mars science team and aid in data analysis. The students and teachers in the program will each spend a week at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., while the rovers are operating on the surface of Mars. Before arriving at JPL, the students will learn about the geology of Mars, the scientific and mechanical capabilities of the rovers, and the software needed to visualize the data that will be returned to Earth during the mission.
NASA is committed to developing programs to inspire students and give them hands-on experience to encourage the future scientists and engineers who will be crucial to space exploration. "More and more, we're trying to involve students directly in our missions, to give them real research opportunities," said Michelle Viotti, manager of NASA's Mars Public Engagement program at JPL. "They are our next generation of explorers."
Teachers will be part of each team and will help students in their investigations of Mars and its geologic history. Students will relay their experiences to other students in their schools and communities and to the public in order to share the excitement of exploring Mars.
Jaunine Fouché, a teacher from the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa., said, "This program isn't simply about the student interns. It is about them learning and passing on their passion and fire to others. It is about inspiring, and it is about seeing and believing in the potential of children even before they see it and believe it for themselves."
The 51 teams participating in the Mars Exploration Student Data Team program will use data from Mars-orbiting spacecraft to help characterize aspects of Mars from the atmosphere to the surface that affect the rover missions. Two NASA orbiters, Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, are actively examining the planet. The Mars Exploration Student Data Team will help compare orbital data to rover-collected data for "ground truthing," which means using ground-level observations to verify interpretations of remote observations.
"We can look around at our environment and surroundings and see the many similarities and differences we might share with other planets," said Joe Aragon, a teacher from Laguna-Acoma High School, New Laguna, N. M. "Learning about them will help us appreciate, respect and know this planet, and perhaps shed some light on our place in the solar system."
Future explorers in the Athena Student Interns Program were selected from around the country, including Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas. Athena is the name of the main instrument payload on each rover -- the toolkit the rovers will use to analyze rocks and other features on Mars.
The Mars Exploration Student Data Team teams are from 24 states plus the District of Columbia and an American school in Bolivia. The two programs will closely complement each other, just as both landed and orbital science teams work closely together in planetary missions.
Additional information about the Athena Student Interns Program, the Mars Exploration Student Data Team, and the Mars Exploration Rovers is available online at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/classroom/students/mer .
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Exploration Program's Mars Public Engagement efforts on behalf of NASA.
JPL/Nancy Lovato (818) 354-9382