Teachable Moments March 5, 2021
Take Math to Mars and Beyond With NASA's Pi Day Challenge
Update: March 15, 2021 – The answers are here! Visit the NASA Pi Day Challenge slideshow to view the illustrated answer keys (also available as a textonly doc) with each problem.
Learn about pi and the history of Pi Day before exploring some of the ways the number is used at NASA. Then, try the math for yourself in our Pi Day Challenge.
In the News
As March 14 approaches, it’s time to get ready to celebrate Pi Day! It’s the annual holiday that pays tribute to the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.
Pi Day comes around only once a year, giving us a reason to chow down on our favorite sweet and savory pies while we appreciate the mathematical marvel that helps NASA explore Earth, the solar system, and beyond. There’s no better way to observe this day than by getting students exploring space right along with NASA by doing the math in our Pi Day Challenge. Keep reading to find out how students – and you – can put their math mettle to the test and solve real problems faced by NASA scientists and engineers as they explore the cosmos!
How It Works
Dividing any circle’s circumference by its diameter gives us pi, which is often rounded to 3.14. However, pi is an irrational number, meaning its decimal representation goes on forever and never repeats. Pi has been calculated to 50 trillion digits, but NASA uses far fewer for space exploration.
Some people may think that a circle has no points. In fact, a circle does have points, and knowing what pi is and how to use it is far from pointless. Pi is used for calculating the area and circumference of circular objects and the volume of shapes like spheres and cylinders. So it's useful for everyone from farmers storing crops in silos to manufacturers of water storage tanks to people who want to find the best value when ordering a pizza. At NASA, we use pi to find the best place to touch down on Mars, study the health of Earth's coral reefs, measure the size of a ring of planetary debris light years away, and lots more.
In the United States, one format to write March 14 is 3.14, which is why we celebrate on that date. 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. And you're in luck, because that's precisely what the NASA Pi Day Challenge is all about.
The Science Behind the 2021 NASA Pi Day Challenge
This year, the NASA Pi Day Challenge offers up four brainticklers that will require students to use pi to collect samples from an asteroid, fly a helicopter on Mars for the first time, find efficient ways to talk with distant spacecraft, and study the forces behind Earth's beautiful auroras. Learn more about the science and engineering behind the problems below or click the link below to jump right into the challenge. Be sure to check back on March 15 for the answers to this year’s challenge.
› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge
› Educators, get the lesson here!
Sample Science
NASA’s OSIRISREx mission has flown to an asteroid and collected a sample of surface material to bring back to Earth. (It will arrive back at Earth in 2023.) The mission is designed to help scientists understand how planets form and add to what we know about nearEarth asteroids, like the one visited by OSIRISREx, asteroid Bennu. Launched in 2016, OSIRISREx began orbiting Bennu in 2018 and successfully performed its maneuver to retrieve a sample on October 20, 2020. In the Sample Science problem, students use pi to determine how much of the spacecraft's samplecollection device needs to make contact with the surface of Bennu to meet mission requirements for success.
Whirling Wonder
Joining the Perseverance rover on Mars is the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet. Named Ingenuity, the helicopter is a technology demonstration, meaning it's a test to see if a similar device could be used for a future Mars mission. To achieve the first powered flight on another planet, Ingenuity must spin its blades at a rapid rate to generate lift in Mars’ thin atmosphere. In Twirly Whirly, students use pi to compare the spin rate of Ingenuity’s blades to those of a typical helicopter on Earth.
Signal Solution
NASA uses radio signals to communicate with spacecraft across the solar system and in interstellar space. As more and more data flows between Earth and these distant spacecraft, NASA needs new technologies to improve how quickly data can be received. One such technology in development is Deep Space Optical Communications, which will use nearinfrared light instead of radio waves to transmit data. Nearinfrared light, with its higher frequency than radio waves, allows for more data to be transmitted per second. In Signal Solution, students can compare the efficiency of optical communication with radio communication, using pi to crunch the numbers.
Force Field
Earth’s magnetic field extends from within the planet to space, and it serves as a protective shield, blocking charged particles from the Sun. Known as the solar wind, these charged particles of helium and hydrogen race from the Sun at hundreds of miles per second. When they reach Earth, they would bombard our planet and orbiting satellites were it not for the magnetic field. Instead, they are deflected, though some particles become trapped by the field and are directed toward the poles, where they interact with the atmosphere, creating auroras. Knowing how Earth’s magnetic field shifts and how particles interact with the field can help keep satellites in safe orbits. In Force Field, students use pi to calculate how much force a hydrogen atom would experience at different points along Earth’s magnetic field.
Teach It
Pi Day is a fun and engaging way to get students thinking like NASA scientists and engineers. By solving the NASA Pi Day Challenge problems below, reading about other ways NASA uses pi, and doing the related activities, students can see first hand how math is an important part of STEM.
Pi Day Resources

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

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

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.

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.

10 Ways to Celebrate Pi Day With NASA on March 14
Find out what makes pi so special, how it’s used to explore space, and how you can join the celebration with resources from NASA.

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.

Pi Day: What's Going 'Round
Tell us what you're up to this Pi Day and share your stories and photos on our showcase page.
Plus, join the conversation using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Related Lessons for Educators

Robotic Arm Challenge
In this challenge, students will use a model robotic arm to move items from one location to another. They will engage in the engineering design process to design, build and operate the arm.
Grades K8
Time 30 min to 1 hour

Whip Up a MoonLike Crater
Whip up a moonlike crater with baking ingredients as a demonstration for students.
Grades 16
Time 30 min to 1 hour

Make a Paper Mars Helicopter
In this lesson, students build a paper helicopter, then improve the design and compare and measure performance.
Grades 28
Time 30 min to 1 hour

Speaking in Phases
Students learn how waves are used in communication between faraway spacecraft and the Deep Space Network on Earth.
Grades 38
Time 30 min to 1 hour

Catching a Whisper from Space
Students kinesthetically model the mathematics of how NASA communicates with spacecraft.
Grades 412
Time 12 hours

Collecting Light: Inverse Square Law Demo
In this activity, students learn how light and energy are spread throughout space. The rate of change can be expressed mathematically, demonstrating why spacecraft like NASA’s Juno need so many solar panels.
Grades 68
Time under 30 min

Build a Relay Inspired by Space Communications
In this intermediatelevel programming challenge, students use microdevices along with light and mirrors to build a relay that can send information to a distant detector.
Grades 812
Time 12 hours

Math Rocks: A Lesson in Asteroid Dynamics
Students use math to investigate a reallife asteroid impact.
Grades 812
Time 30 min to 1 hour
Related Activities for Students

Code a Mars Helicopter Video Game
Create a video game that lets players explore the Red Planet with a helicopter like the one going to Mars with NASA's Perseverance rover!
Type Project
Subject Technology

Make a Paper Mars Helicopter
Build a paper helicopter, then see if you can improve the design like NASA engineers did when making the first helicopter for Mars.
Type Project
Subject Engineering

How Does NASA Spot a NearEarth Asteroid?
Watch this oneminute video to find out how NASA spots and tracks asteroids that fly close to Earth.
Type Video
Subject Science

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
Explore More
Infographic
Facts and Figures
Missions and Instruments
Websites
TAGS: Pi, Pi Day, NASA Pi Day Challenge, Math, Mars, Perseverance, Ingenuity, Mars Helicopter, OSIRISREx, Bennu, Asteroid, Auroras, Earth, Magnetic Field, DSOC, Light Waves, DSN, Deep Space Network, Space Communications