Students got some hands-on fun

A student examines a model wheel for the rover.

JPL's Connie Gennaro maneuvers a model rover over the student visitors.

Rock outcrop at the Opportunity landing site.

What can scientists learn about Mars by studying Earth? How do the ocean planet and the red planet differ, and how are they alike? These are some of the questions posed by students during a recent field trip to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Forty-one students, teachers and parents from the Monrovia, Calif., campus of Lycee International de Los Angeles spent an afternoon 'playing' in the Mars rover test area, ogling JPL's wealth of planetary images, and strapping on 3-D glasses to take a virtual tour of distant worlds. The tour, arranged by JPL's Earth science public engagement team in conjunction with Mars team members, highlighted how Earth science studies help expand our knowledge and exploration of places like Mars.

Mars on Earth

At the Mars "sandbox," Mars Exploration Rover Deputy Project Scientist Dr. Albert Haldemann showed off the JPL "marscape" created to test rover agility around rocks and rough terrain. Haldemann explained that the red soil and rock used to create the marscape came from an ancient volcanic cinder cone in northern Arizona. Haldemann also explained how engineers use test rovers on Earth to plan events for Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers currently roaming around Mars.

Seven-year-old Danil Ivanov said, "I really liked seeing how the rovers turn but I didn't realize it took them a whole three days to do it!"

Tests that require a martian-like landscape or environment are carried out in different ways depending on the intended simulation. Airbag bounce testing was conducted in a giant vacuum chamber in Ohio, while the science team learned how to remotely pilot the rovers using a field rover deployed in the desert north of Flagstaff, Arizona.

In Touch with Rovers

Another stop on the tour was JPL's Regional Planetary Image Facility. To demonstrate the agility of the rovers, Mars outreach representative Connie Gennaro had the students lie on the floor while she remotely guided a model rover over them. When Gennaro asked if any of the adults wanted to participate, within a split second, not one of them was left standing.

Inspiring Imagery

Planetary Image Facility librarian Debbie Martin shared her enthusiasm for space while showing some of the many types of image data and material available to researchers. Beautiful images captured by robotic explorers not only inspire awe, but enhance scientific understanding of a planet. The tour group learned about sophisticated cameras that snap topographic images, which reveal towering mountains, deep valleys and steep inclines. Topographic images were important tools for selecting the landing sites for both Spirit and Opportunity.

In the Digital Image Animation Laboratory, imaging specialist Dr. Eric DeJong treated guests to some spectacular 3-D animations and a flyover that both wowed his audience and graphically demonstrated how science information can be gathered from such amazing imagery. DeJong, along with a team of scientists and engineers, uses images taken by cameras onboard the Mars Exploration Rovers and earlier spacecraft, together with sophisticated visualization and image processing tools, to create the realistic animations and flyovers. Visualizations are useful for simulating the appearance of different environments. During one animation viewers were asked to imagine the presence of liquid water on Mars, then watched intently as they saw a dry valley slowly fill with water, simulating what Mars may have looked like in the past.

The tour was part of an ongoing collaboration between JPL's Earth science public engagement team and the Lycee Monrovia. It is one of many programs that help bring the science and education communities together.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.