Teachable Moments March 6, 2020
We've Got the Formula for a Stellar Pi Day
Update: March 16, 2020 – The answers to the 2020 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key (also available as a textonly doc).
In the News
Our annual opportunity to indulge in a shared love of space exploration, mathematics and sweet treats has come around again! Pi Day is the March 14 holiday that celebrates the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.
Besides providing an excuse to eat all varieties of pie, Pi Day gives us a chance to appreciate some of the ways NASA uses pi to explore the solar system and beyond. You can do the math for yourself – or get students doing it – by taking part in the NASA Pi Day Challenge. Find out below how to test your pi skills with realworld problems faced by NASA space explorers, plus get lessons and resources for educators.
How It Works
The ratio of any circle's circumference to its diameter is equal to pi, which is often rounded to 3.14. But pi is what is known as an irrational number, so its decimal representation never ends, and it never repeats. Though it has been calculated to trillions of digits, we use far fewer at NASA.
Pi is useful for all sorts of things, like calculating the circumference and area of circular objects and the volume of cylinders. That's helpful information for everyone from farmers irrigating crops to tire manufacturers to soupmakers filling their cans. At NASA, we use pi to calculate the densities of planets, point space telescopes at distant stars and galaxies, steer rovers on the Red Planet, put spacecraft into orbit and so much more! With so many practical applications, it's no wonder so many people love pi!
In the U.S., 3.14 is also how we refer to March 14, which is why we celebrate the mathematical marvel that is pi on that date each year. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution officially designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.
The NASA Pi Day Challenge
This year's NASA Pi Day Challenge poses four puzzlers that require pi to compare the sizes of Mars landing areas, calculate the length of a year for one of the most distant objects in the solar system, measure the depth of the ocean from an airplane, and determine the diameter of a distant debris disk. Learn more about the science and engineering behind the problems below or click the link to jump right into the challenge.
› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge
› Educators, get the lesson here!
Mars Maneuver
Long before a Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet, scientists and engineers must determine where to land. Rather than choosing a specific landing spot, NASA selects an area known as a landing ellipse. A Mars rover could land anywhere within this ellipse. Choosing where the landing ellipse is located requires compromising between getting as close as possible to interesting science targets and avoiding hazards like steep slopes and large boulders, which could quickly bring a mission to its end. In the Mars Maneuver problem, students use pi to see how new technologies have reduced the size of landing ellipses from one Mars rover mission to the next.
Cold Case
In January 2019, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft sped past Arrokoth, a frigid, primitive object that orbits within the Kuiper Belt, a doughnutshaped ring of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Arrokoth is the most distant Kuiper Belt object to be visited by a spacecraft and only the second object in the region to have been explored up close. To get New Horizons to Arrokoth, mission navigators needed to know the orbital properties of the object, such as its speed, distance from the Sun, and the tilt and shape of its orbit. This information is also important for scientists studying the object. In the Cold Case problem, students can use pi to determine how long it takes the distant object to make one trip around the Sun.
Coral Calculus
Coral reefs provide food and shelter to many ocean species and protect coastal communities against extreme weather events. Ocean warming, invasive species, pollutants, and acidification caused by climate change can harm the tiny living coral organisms responsible for building coral reefs. To better understand the health of Earth's coral reefs, NASA's COral Reef Airborne Laboratory, or CORAL, mission maps them from the air using spectroscopy, studying how light interacts with the reefs. To make accurate maps, CORAL must be able to differentiate among coral, algae and sand on the ocean floor from an airplane. And to do that, it needs to calculate the depth of the ocean at every point it maps by measuring how much sunlight passes through the ocean and is reflected upward from the ocean floor. In Coral Calculus, students use pi to measure the water depth of an area mapped by the CORAL mission and help scientists better understand the status of Earth's coral reefs.
Planet Pinpointer
Our galaxy contains billions of stars, many of which are likely home to exoplanets – planets outside our solar system. So how do scientists decide where to look for these worlds? Using data gathered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers found that they're more likely to find giant exoplanets around young stars surrounded by debris disks, which are made up of material similar to what's found in the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt in our solar system. Sure enough, after discovering a debris disk around the star Beta Pictoris, researchers later confirmed that it is home to at least two giant exoplanets. Learning more about Beta Pictoris' debris disk could give scientists insight into the formation of these giant worlds. In Planet Pinpointer, put yourself in the role of a NASA scientist to learn more about Beta Pictoris' debris disk, using pi to calculate the distance across it.
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 Lessons for Educators

Rover Lessons
Explore a collection of standardsaligned STEM lessons all about rovers.
Grades K12
Time Varies

Touchdown
Students design and build a shockabsorbing system that will protect two "astronauts" when they land.
Grades 38
Time 30 mins  1 hr

On Target
Students modify a paper cup so it can zip down a line and drop a marble onto a target.
Grades 612
Time 30 mins  1 hr

Solar System Scale Models
Explore a collection of standardsaligned STEM lessons all about the size and scale of our solar system.
Grades 112
Time Varies

Modeling an Asteroid
Lead a discussion about asteroids and their physical properties, then have students mold their own asteroids out of clay.
Grades 35
Time 30 mins  1 hr

Math Rocks: A Lesson in Asteroid Dynamics
Students use math to investigate a reallife asteroid impact.
Grades 812
Time 30 mins  1 hr

Asteroid Ace: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
Students use pi to calculate the rotation rate of an asteroid from another solar system in this illustrated math problem.
Grades 1112
Time < 30 mins

Climate Change Lessons
Explore a collection of standardsaligned STEM lessons all about Earth's changing climate.
Grades K12
Time Varies

Using Light to Study Planets
Students build a spectrometer using basic materials as a model for how NASA uses spectroscopy to determine the nature of elements found on Earth and other planets.
Grades 611
Time < 2 hrs

Solar Sleuth: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use pi and data from the Kepler space telescope to find the size of a planet outside our solar system.
Grades 69
Time < 30 mins

Exploring Exoplanets with Kepler
Students use math concepts related to transits to discover realworld data about Mercury, Venus and planets outside our solar system.
Grades 612
Time 30 mins  1 hr

Habitable Hunt: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use the mathematical constant pi to find the "habitable zone" around a distant star and determine which of its planets are in that zone.
Grades 1112
Time < 30 mins
Related Activities for Students

Make a Moon or Mars Rover Game
Create a Moon or Mars exploration game using Scratch, a visual programming language. Think like NASA spacemission planners to design your game!
Type Project
Subject Technology

Make a Cardboard Rover
Build a rubberbandpowered rover that can scramble across a room.
Type Project
Subject Engineering

Mars in a Minute: How Do You Choose a Landing Site?
So, you want to study Mars with a lander or rover – but where exactly do you send it? Learn how scientists and engineers tackle the question of where to land on Mars in this 60second video.
Type Video
Subject Engineering

Mars in a Minute: How Do You Land on Mars?
Getting a spacecraft to Mars is one thing. Getting it safely to the ground is a whole other challenge! This 60second video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains three ways to land on the surface of the Red Planet.
Type Video
Subject Engineering

What's That Space Rock?
Find out how to tell the difference between asteroids, comets, meteors, meteorites and other bodies in our solar system.
Type Slideshow
Subject Science

Mars in a Minute: How Long is a Year on Mars?
How long is does it take Mars to make one trip around the Sun and why is one Earth year shorter? Find out in one minute!
Type Video
Subject Science

Space Place in a Snap: The Solar System's Formation
Find out how our solar system formed and how it came to be the busy place it is today.
Type Video
Subject Science

What Is the Kuiper Belt?
Learn about the Kuiper Belt and some of its famous members, Kuiper Belt Objects.
Type Article
Subject Science

Coral Bleaching Simulator
Adjust water temperature and pollution levels in this simulator to see what happens to a coral reef depending on the conditions you choose!
Type Interactive
Subject Science

Ocean Worlds
Where might oceans – and living things – exist beyond Earth? Scientists have their eyes on these places in our own solar system.
Type Slideshow
Subject Science

NASA's Earth Minute: Mission to Earth?
NASA doesn't just explore outer space! It studies Earth, too, with a fleet of spacecraft and scientists far and wide.
Type Video
Subject Science

NASA's Earth Minute: Earth Has a Fever
Why is Earth getting hotter and what does that mean for us?
Type Video
Subject Science
NOAA Video Series: Coral Comeback
 Article: Giant Exoplanet Hunters: Look for Debris Disks
 Video: The Evolution of a PlanetForming Disk
 Video: Birth of "Phoenix" Planets?
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.
 Posters: Exoplanet Travel Bureau
Facts and Figures
Missions and Instruments
Websites
TAGS: K12 Education, Math, Pi Day, Pi, NASA Pi Day Challenge, Events, Space, Educators, Teachers, Parents, Students, STEM, Lessons, Problem Set, Mars 2020, Perseverance, Curiosity, Mars rovers, Mars landing, MU69, Arrokoth, New Horizons, Earth science, Climate change, CORAL, NASA Expeditions, coral reefs, oceans, Spitzer, exoplanets, Beta Pictoris, stars, universe, space telescope, Climate TM