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
Teachable Moments  March 8, 2019
NASA Rocket Science? It's Easy As Pi
Update: March 15, 2019 – The answers to the 2019 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
Edu News  March 16, 2016
How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need?
Earlier this week, we received this question from a fan on Facebook who wondered how many decimals of the mathematical constant pi (π) NASAJPL scientists and engineers use when making calculations:
Does JPL only use 3.14 for its pi calculations? Or do you use more decimals like say: 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592307816406286208998628034825342117067982148086513282306647093844609550582231725359408128481117450284102701938521105559644622948954930381964428810975665933446128475648233786783165271201909145648566923460348610454326648213393607260249141273724587006606315588174881520920962829254091715364367892590360
We posed this question to the director and chief engineer for NASA's Dawn mission, Marc Rayman. Here's what he said:
Thank you for your question! This isn't the first time I've heard a question like this. In fact, it was posed many years ago by a sixthgrade science and space enthusiast who was later fortunate enough to earn a doctorate in physics and become involved in space exploration. His name was Marc Rayman.
To start, let me answer your question directly. For JPL's highest accuracy calculations, which are for interplanetary navigation, we use 3.141592653589793. Let's look at this a little more closely to understand why we don't use more decimal places. I think we can even see that there are no physically realistic calculations scientists ever perform for which it is necessary to include nearly as many decimal points as you present. Consider these examples:
 The most distant spacecraft from Earth is Voyager 1. It is about 12.5 billion miles away. Let's say we have a circle with a radius of exactly that size (or 25 billion miles in diameter) and we want to calculate the circumference, which is pi times the radius times 2. Using pi rounded to the 15th decimal, as I gave above, that comes out to a little more than 78 billion miles. We don't need to be concerned here with exactly what the value is (you can multiply it out if you like) but rather what the error in the value is by not using more digits of pi. In other words, by cutting pi off at the 15th decimal point, we would calculate a circumference for that circle that is very slightly off. It turns out that our calculated circumference of the 25 billion mile diameter circle would be wrong by 1.5 inches. Think about that. We have a circle more than 78 billion miles around, and our calculation of that distance would be off by perhaps less than the length of your little finger.
 We can bring this down to home with our planet Earth. It is 7,926 miles in diameter at the equator. The circumference then is 24,900 miles. That's how far you would travel if you circumnavigated the globe (and didn't worry about hills, valleys, obstacles like buildings, rest stops, waves on the ocean, etc.). How far off would your odometer be if you used the limited version of pi above? It would be off by the size of a molecule. There are many different kinds of molecules, of course, so they span a wide range of sizes, but I hope this gives you an idea. Another way to view this is that your error by not using more digits of pi would be 10,000 times thinner than a hair!
 Let's go to the largest size there is: the visible universe. The radius of the universe is about 46 billion light years. Now let me ask a different question: How many digits of pi would we need to calculate the circumference of a circle with a radius of 46 billion light years to an accuracy equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom (the simplest atom)? The answer is that you would need 39 or 40 decimal places. If you think about how fantastically vast the universe is — truly far beyond what we can conceive, and certainly far, far, far beyond what you can see with your eyes even on the darkest, most beautiful, starfilled night — and think about how incredibly tiny a single atom is, you can see that we would not need to use many digits of pi to cover the entire range.
Read more from Marc Rayman on the Dawn Journal, where he writes monthly updates about the Dawn spacecraft currently exploring the dwarf planet Ceres to provide scientists with a window into the dawn of the solar system.
Can you use pi like a NASA scientist?› Take the Pi in the Sky Challenge!
TAGS: Pi, Pi Day, Dawn, Voyager, Engineering, Science, Mathematics
Teachable Moments  March 16, 2016
Pi Day the NASA Way
UPDATE: March 16, 2016 – The answers the the NASA Pi Day Challenge are now available as an illustrated answer key. Download a poster version of the answer key on the "Pi in the Sky 3" activity page.
This post was originally published on March 9, 2016
In the News
Pi Day, the informal holiday beloved by math enthusiasts – and even by the math averse – is almost here! March 14 marks the yearly celebration of the mathematical constant (pi), which represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. More than just a number for mathematicians, pi has all sorts of applications in the real world, including on missions developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And as a holiday that encourages more than a little creativity – whether it’s making pithemed pies or reciting from memory as many of the neverending decimals of pi as possible (the record is 70,030 digits) – it’s a great way to have fun and celebrate the M in STEM.
Why March 14?
Pi is what’s known as an irrational number, meaning its decimal representation never ends and it never repeats. It has been calculated to more than one trillion digits, but 3.14 is often a precise enough approximation, hence the celebration occurring on March 14, or 3/14 (when written in US month/day format). The first known celebration occurred in 1988, and in 2009, the US 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.
Why It’s Important
Pi Day is lots of fun, but its importance lies in the role that pi plays in the everyday work of scientists and engineers at JPL.
Fred Calef, a geospatial information scientist at JPL, uses pi to make measurements – like perimeter, area and volume – of features on Mars. “I use pi to measure the circularity of features, or how round or compact they are," said Calef. "Craters become more elliptical if the projectile hits the surface at a lower angle, so I use pi to measure how round a crater is to see if it impacted at a low angle.”
"We use pi every day commanding rovers on Mars," said Hallie Gengl, a rover planner for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, "Everything from taking images, turning the wheels, driving around, operating the robotic arm, and even talking to Earth.”
Bryana Henderson, who specializes in planetary ices, uses lasers to explode ice samples and study their composition. "I use pi to calculate the width of my laser beam, which in turn can be used to calculate the amount of energy, or fluence, that hits my ice sample," said Henderson. "A larger fluence equals a bigger explosion in the ice, so this is a very important parameter for us."
The Pi Day Challenge
JPL has released the third installment of its popular Pi Day challenge, which gives students and the public a chance to put their pi skills to the test to solve some of the same problems NASA scientists and engineers do. The set of four illustrated math problems are compiled into a graphic (as well as classroom handouts) designed for students in grade 4 through high school – but fun for all!
› Check out this year's Pi Day challenge!
This year’s problem set shows how pi can be used to map the surface of Saturn’s hazy moon Titan, track the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it explores the Red Planet, keep Earth’s satellites powered as Mercury transits the sun, and put the Juno spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter.
“For Pi Day, we like to give students and the public a glimpse into how math is used at JPL through questions that feature current events involving our space missions,” said Ota Lutz, an education specialist at JPL who helped create the problem set. “For instance, to put the Juno spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter on July 4, engineers will have to slow the spacecraft just the right amount. In the Pi Day challenge, students use pi to calculate that change in velocity.”
In the challenge, students will also use pi to calculate how much sunlight is blocked by our solar system’s innermost planet as it passes between Earth and the sun. This year, Pi Day comes just a few months before the May 9 transit of Mercury, making this a timely problem.
On March 16, the answers to all four problems and the steps needed to find those answers will be released in a companion infographic on the Pi Day challenge activity page.
In addition to the Pi Day challenge, JPL is inviting the public to share their Pi Day pictures and stories online. On March 14, JPL will join in on the fun with Pi Day photos and stories from the lab.
› Share Your Pi Day photos and storiesTo see a compilation of all 12 Pi Day challenge questions optimized for mobile devices and screen readers, visit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/nasapidaychallenge
Explore More
Pi Day Challenges
Multimedia
Facts and Figures
Missions
Websites
TAGS: pi, pi day, math, mathematics