Teachable Moments March 8, 2019
NASA Rocket Science? It's Easy As Pi
Update: March 15, 2019 – The answers to the 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key
In the News
The excitement of Pi Day – and our annual excuse to chow down on pie – is upon us! The holiday celebrating the mathematical constant pi arrives on March 14, and with it comes the sixth installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Education Office. This challenge gives students in grades 612 a chance to solve four realworld problems faced by NASA scientists and engineers. (Even if you’re done with school, they’re worth a try for the bragging rights.)
Why March 14?
Pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is what is known as an irrational number. As an irrational number, its decimal representation never ends, and it never repeats. Though it has been calculated to trillions of digits, we use far fewer at NASA. In fact, 3.14 is a good approximation, which is why March 14 (or 3/14 in U.S. month/day format) came to be the date that we celebrate this mathematical marvel.
The firstknown Pi Day celebration occurred in 1988. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.
The 2019 Challenge
This year’s NASA Pi Day Challenge features four planetary puzzlers that show students how pi is used at the agency. The challenges involve weathering a Mars dust storm, sizing up a shrinking storm on Jupiter, estimating the water content of a rain cloud on Earth and blasting ice samples with lasers!
›Take on the 2019 NASA Pi Day Challenge!
The Science Behind the Challenge
In late spring of 2018, a dust storm began stretching across Mars and eventually nearly blanketed the entire planet in thick dust. Darkness fell across Mars’ surface, blocking the vital sunlight that the solarpowered Opportunity rover needed to survive. It was the beginning of the end for the rover’s 15year mission on Mars. At its height, the storm covered all but the peak of Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system. In the Deadly Dust challenge, students must use pi to calculate what percentage of the Red Planet was covered by the dust storm.
The Terra satellite, orbiting Earth since 1999, uses the nine cameras on its MultiAngle Imaging SpectroRadiometer, or MISR, instrument to provide scientists with unique views of Earth, returning data about atmospheric particles, landsurface features and clouds. Estimating the amount of water in a cloud, and the potential for rainfall, is serious business. Knowing how much rain may fall in a given area can help residents and first responders prepare for emergencies like flooding and mudslides. In Cloud Computing, students can use their knowledge of pi and geometric shapes to estimate the amount of water contained in a cloud.
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a giant storm that has been fascinating observers since the early 19th century, is shrinking. The storm has been continuously observed since the 1830s, but measurements from spacecraft like Voyager, the Hubble Space Telescope and Juno indicate the storm is getting smaller. How much smaller? In Storm Spotter, students can determine the answer to that very question faced by scientists.
Scientists studying ices found in space, such as comets, want to understand what they’re made of and how they interact and react with the environment around them. To see what molecules may form in space when a comet comes into contact with solar wind or sunlight, scientists place an ice sample in a vacuum and then expose it to electrons or ultraviolet photons. Scientists have analyzed samples in the lab and detected molecules that were later observed in space on comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko. To analyze the lab samples, an infrared laser is aimed at the ice, causing it to explode. But the ice will explode only if the laser is powerful enough. Scientist use pi to figure out how strong the laser needs to be to explode the sample – and students can do the same when they solve the Icy Intel challenge.
Explore More
Participate

Pi Day Challenge Lessons
Here's everything you need to bring the NASA Pi Day Challenge into the classroom.
Grades 412
Time Varies

Slideshow: NASA Pi Day Challenge
The entire NASA Pi Day Challenge collection can be found in one, handy slideshow for students.
Grades 412
Time Varies

Pi Day: What’s Going ’Round
Tell us what you’re up to this Pi Day and share your stories and photos with NASA.
Join the conversation and share your Pi Day Challenge answers with @NASAJPL_Edu on social media using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge
Blogs and Features

How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need?
While you may have memorized more than 70,000 digits of pi, world record holders, a JPL engineer explains why you really only need a tiny fraction of that for most calculations.

Slideshow: 18 Ways NASA Uses Pi
Whether it's sending spacecraft to other planets, driving rovers on Mars, finding out what planets are made of or how deep alien oceans are, pi takes us far at NASA. Find out how pi helps us explore space.
Related Activities

The Sky and Dichotomous Key
Students learn about cloud types to be able to predict inclement weather. They will then identify areas in the school affected by severe weather and develop a solution to ease the impacts of rain, wind, heat or sun.
Grades K3
Time 30 mins  1 hr

Precipitation Towers: Modeling Weather Data
This lesson uses stacking cubes as a way to graph precipitation data, comparing the precipitation averages and seasonal patterns for several locations.
Grades K5
Time 30 mins  1 hr

Create a Comet with Dry Ice
Build an icy model of a comet out of dry ice  complete with shooting jets!  as a demonstration for students.
Grades 25
Time < 30 mins

Comet on a Stick
Students build their own comet models using craft materials.
Grades 28
Time 30 mins  1 hr

Modeling the Water Budget
Students use a spreadsheet model to understand droughts and the movement of water in the water cycle.
Grades 58
Time 30 min  1 hr

Make a Cloud Mobile  NASA SpacePlace
This mobile of feathery clouds will twist and turn in a gentle breeze. It even includes rain clouds with sparkling showers!
Grades 36
Multimedia

Infographic: Planet Pi
This poster shows some of the ways NASA scientists and engineers use the mathematical constant pi (3.14) and includes common pi formulas.

Game: Comet Quest  NASA SpacePlace
Control a spacecraft and use it to explore an icy comet!
Facts and Figures
 Mars
 Jupiter
 Earth
 Comets
 Comet 67P/ ChuryumovGerasimenko
 What is a Laser? – NASA SpacePlace
 What Is the Water Cycle? – Climate Kids
Missions and Instruments
 Hubble Space Telescope
 Voyager
 Juno
 Opportunity Rover
 Rosetta
 MISR instrument
 Ice Spectroscopy Laboratory
Websites
TAGS: Pi Day, K12, STEM, Science, Engineering, Technology, Math, Pi, Educators, Teachers, Informal Education, Museums