Six students of various ethnicities and genders walk out of a garage housing a model of the Perseverance Mars rover.

For these six students, an internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory meant playing a key hands-on role in developing a trio of small rovers destined for the Moon and designed to show the promise of multirobot missions.


Collage of illustrations featured in the 2024 NASA Pi Day Challenge

Learn how pi is used by NASA and how many of its infinite digits have been calculated, then explore the science and engineering behind the 2024 Pi Day Challenge.

Update: March 15, 2024 – The answers to the 2024 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! Take a peek at the illustrated answer key now available under each problem on the NASA Pi Day Challenge page.

This year marks the 11th installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge. Celebrated on March 14, Pi Day is the annual holiday that pays tribute to the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.

Every year on March 14, Pi Day gives us a reason to enjoy our favorite sweet and savory pies and celebrate the mathematical wonder that helps NASA explore the universe. Students can join in the fun once again by using pi to explore Earth and space themselves with the NASA Pi Day Challenge.

Read on to learn more about the science behind this year's challenge and get students solving real problems faced by NASA scientists and engineers exploring Earth, the Moon, asteroids, and beyond!

Infographic of all of the Pi in the Sky 11 graphics and problems

Visit the Pi in the Sky 11 lesson page to explore classroom resources and downloads for the 2024 NASA Pi Day Challenge. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

What is Pi

Dividing any circle’s circumference by its diameter gives you an answer of pi, which is usually rounded to 3.14. Because pi is an irrational number, its decimal representation goes on forever and never repeats. In 2022, mathematician Simon Plouffe discovered the formula to calculate any single digit of pi. In the same year, teams around the world used cloud computing technology to calculate pi to 100 trillion digits. But you might be surprised to learn that for space exploration, NASA uses far fewer digits of pi.

Here at NASA, we use pi to map the Moon, measure Earth’s changing surface, receive laser-coded messages from deep space, and calculate asteroid orbits. But pi isn’t just used for exploring the cosmos. Since pi can be used to find the area or circumference of round objects and the volume or surface area of shapes like cylinders, cones, and spheres, it is useful in all sorts of ways. Transportation teams use pi when determining the size of new subway tunnels. Electricians can use pi when calculating the current or voltage passing through circuits. And you might even use pi to figure out how much fencing is needed around a circular school garden bed.

In the United States, March 14 can be written as 3.14, which is why that date was chosen for celebrating all things pi. 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 that's precisely what the NASA Pi Day Challenge is all about!

The Science Behind the 2024 NASA Pi Day Challenge

This 11th installment of the NASA Pi Day Challenge includes four illustrated math problems designed to get students thinking like scientists and engineers to calculate how to get a laser message to Earth, the change in an asteroid’s orbit, the amount of data that can be collected by an Earth satellite, and how a team of mini rovers will map portions of the Moon’s surface.

Read on to learn more about the science and engineering behind each problem or click the link below to jump right into the challenge.

› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge

› Educators, get the lesson here!

Receiver Riddle

In December 2023, NASA tested a new way to communicate with distant spacecraft using technology called Deep Space Optical Communications, or DSOC. From 19,000,000 miles (30,199,000 km) away, the Psyche spacecraft beamed a high-definition video encoded in a near-infrared laser to Earth. The video, showing a cat named Taters chasing a laser, traveled at the speed of light, where it was received at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. Because of the great distance the laser had to travel, the team needed to aim the transmission at where Earth would be when the signal arrived. In Receiver Riddle, use pi to determine where along Earth's orbit the team needed to aim the laser so that it could be received at the Observatory at the correct moment.

This animation shows how DSOC's laser signals are sent between the Psyche spacecraft and ground stations on Earth - first as a pointing reference to ensure accurate aiming of the narrow laser signal and then as a data transmission to the receiving station. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU| Watch on YouTube

Daring Deflection

In 2022, NASA crashed a spacecraft into the asteroid Dimorphos in an attempt to alter its orbit. The mission, known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, took place at an asteroid that posed no threat to our planet. Rather, it was an ideal target for NASA to test an important element of its planetary defense plan. DART was designed as a kinetic impactor, meaning it transferred its momentum and kinetic energy to Dimorphos upon impact, altering the asteroid's orbit. In Daring Deflection, use pi to determine the shape of Dimorphos’ orbit after DART crashed into it.

An animation shows the surface of an asteroid getting closer and closer. In the last several frames, the animation slows and details of the rocky surface come into view.

This image shows the final minutes of images leading up to the DART spacecraft's intentional collision with asteroid Dimorphos. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL | › Enlarge image

Orbit Observation

The NISAR mission is an Earth orbiting satellite designed to study our planet's changing ecosystems. It will collect data about Earth's land- and ice-covered surfaces approximately every 6 days, allowing scientists to study changes at the centimeter scale – an unprecedented level of detail. To achieve this feat, NISAR will collect massive amounts of data. In Orbit Observation, students use pi to calculate how much data the NISAR spacecraft captures during each orbit of Earth.

An illustration shows the NISAR spacecraft orbiting above Earth.

The NISAR satellite, shown in this artist’s concept, will use advanced radar imaging to provide an unprecedented view of changes to Earth’s land- and ice-covered surfaces. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. | › Full image and caption

Moon Mappers

The CADRE project aims to land a team of mini rovers on the Moon in 2025 as a test of new exploration technology. Three suitcase-size rovers, each working mostly autonomously, will communicate with each other and a base station on their lunar lander to simultaneously measure data from different locations. If successful, the project could open the door for future multi-robot exploration missions. In Moon Mappers, students explore the Moon with pi by determining how far a CADRE rover drives on the Moon’s surface.

A small rover is attached to an elevated rack while two engineers hold their hands out toward the underside of the rover.

Engineers test the system that will lower three small rovers onto the lunar surface as part of the CADRE project. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Bring the Challenge Into the Classroom

Celebrate Pi Day by getting students thinking like NASA scientists and engineers to solve real-world problems in the NASA Pi Day Challenge. In addition to solving the 2024 challenge, you can also dig into the 40 puzzlers from previous challenges available in our Pi Day collection. Completing the problem set and reading about other ways NASA uses pi is a great way for students to see the importance of the M in STEM.

More Pi Resources

Related Lessons for Educators

Related Activities for Students

Facts and Figures





TAGS: Pi Day, Pi, Math, NASA Pi Day Challenge, moon, earth, asteroid, psyche, DART, CADRE, NISAR DSOC

  • Lyle Tavernier