Illustration showing a laser pointed down at ice on one side. On the other side the ice has been exploded and an inset shows molecules, including amino acids

Overview

The "Pi in the Sky" math challenge gives students a chance to take part in recent discoveries and upcoming celestial events, all while using math and pi just like NASA scientists and engineers. In this problem from the set, students use the mathematical constant pi and data from NASA scientists to determine if a laser can explode an ice sample for analysis. The answer will be revealed on March 15!

Materials

Background

Animated black-and-white image of a jet shooting out from a comet

A short-lived outburst from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was captured by the Rosetta spacecraft on July 29, 2015. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS | › Full image and caption

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/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. 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.

Procedures

Icy Intel

Scientists at JPL study ices found in space to understand what they’re made of and how chemical processes unfold in cold environments. To find out what molecules are produced when sunlight or solar wind hits a comet, scientists place a piece of simulated comet ice in a vacuum to expose it to conditions that exist in space. Then, they aim an infrared laser at the sample to produce a plume that can be analyzed. Scientists have found that when simple molecules are exposed to light or electrons, they can transform into more complex molecules – even ones considered key to life’s formation!

Scientists need to know how much energy is hitting the sample in a given area. This is called “fluence.” Enough of it will explode the ice so the sample can be analyzed. Peak fluence is found by dividing the laser’s total optical pulse energy by πw2/2, where w is the radius of the beam. Using a beam that has a radius of 125.0 µm and a total optical pulse energy of 0.30 mJ, what is the laser’s peak fluence in J/cm2?

If the optics used to aim and focus the laser reduce its energy by 27% before it hits the sample, will this beam be sufficient to examine a sample that needs a peak fluence of 1.0 J/cm2 to explode?

Illustration showing a laser pointed down at ice on one side. On the other side the ice has been exploded and an inset shows molecules, including amino acids.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | › Download PDF

Assessment

Infographic answer key for all of the Pi in the Sky 6 graphics and problems

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Extensions

Participate

Join the conversation and share your Pi Day Challenge answers with @NASAJPL_Edu on social media using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge

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