Children's Programming

Kids can take a virtual spin on Mars

Rover program announced during Space Day activities


May 6 - Hey, kids: Want to drive a rover on Mars? NASA plans to give children as young as 11 a turn at the remote controls on Earth during a mission due for launch in 2001. Selected students would issue the commands to move a rover just like the one that wowed the world during the Mars Pathfinder mission.

THE PLANETARY SOCIETY, a nonprofit space advocacy group, announced the "Red Rover Goes to Mars" program as part of Thursday's Space Day activities in Washington. It's an offshoot of an existing program that lets students build model rovers and simulated Mars landscapes - then control such rovers over the Internet.  Kids in, say, Toronto can drive rovers in Texas. But the new program would represent a quantum leap.

"Children will compete, just like astronauts," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. "They'll enter an essay contest, they'll do projects and they'll earn their way up to become student astronauts, to be part of the mission operations team to operate a rover and a robotic arm on Mars."

The rover, dubbed Marie Curie in honor of the late Polish-French chemist and physicist, is a carbon copy of the Sojourner rover that tooled around the plains of Ares Vallis in 1997 as part of the Pathfinder mission. Marie Curie is to be launched along with the Mars Surveyor lander in April 2001, and arrive at Mars in January 2002.

The Mars Surveyor 2001 mission will sample the Red Planet's soil and atmosphere, and also test techniques for manufacturing materials that will be needed for eventual human missions.

As many as 100 students would be selected to spend time with Mars mission teams, Linda Hyder of the Planetary Society said. A number of those, yet to be determined, would be involved in operating the rover and the robotic arm on the lander, she said.

Bill Nye, host of the TV program "Bill Nye the Science Guy," explained the challenges of controlling a Mars rover in terms that preteens could well understand. Commands issued from Earth, even beamed at the speed of light, take 10 minutes or more to get to Mars, he noted.

"Suppose you were riding your bicycle, and you had to let go of the handlebars for 10 1/2 minutes," he told a youthful audience at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "You'd probably hit something, right? ... How could you not? So we have to figure out ways to operate this vehicle on another planet even though we can't direct it exactly where we want it to go (in real time)."

But when the system works, it's a great feeling, said Rob Manning, who was project manager for Pathfinder and is now chief engineer for the Mars robotic exploration program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"There's nothing like operating a vehicle on the surface of another planet to bring out the kid in you," he told MSNBC. "It is so fun. The idea that something that I do in California can make something move and happen on another planet. And to know that you're the only one on this planet who can do that on another planet ... it's mind-boggling. ...

"I wish I could have shared it with more of my colleagues here at JPL," he said.

The educational project is being funded by the Planetary Society and the Lego Co., which provides robotic rover kits for the "Red Rover, Red Rover" effort. Participants must be born between Jan. 31, 1984 and Jan. 31, 1991. For more information, contact the Planetary Society's Linda Hyder at (626) 793-5100 or by e-mail at .

In cooperation with JPL, the Planetary Society is also inviting young people to submit prototypes for a student-designed experiment on Mars. Entrants must be pre-college students, 18 years old or younger, to compete in "2001 Mars Odyssey: the Student NanoExperiment Challenge."

The Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment team proposed that a student experiment be incorporated into the MECA experiment package on the 2001 mission. Some of the experiments will test how the Martian environment affects patches of different materials, including spacesuit fabrics. The selected student experiment will be placed with these patches.

To enter the Student NanoExperiment Challenge, students must design and build a prototype experiment, and submit it along with a written summary of the experiment that is 350 words or less. Each student must also maintain a journal that documents the development of the experiment.

Judges will select one or more experiments from among the finalists to be constructed for flight-readiness testing. If it passes all mission requirements, the experiment selected by the MECA team will be integrated into the 2001 lander.

The experiment has to fit within a cylinder that is 1.25 centimeter in diameter by 1 centimeter in height. Total mass allowance is 3 grams or less. It has to be self-contained, and the results have to be observable from a camera on the lander's robotic arm.

Since the student prototypes will not be flight-qualified, the Planetary Society will fund the building of the actual flight unit.

Contest deadline is July 31, 1999. Entry forms and complete Challenge guidelines are available from the Planetary Society at 65 North Catalina Ave., Pasadena, CA 91106 or from the society's Web site .

Space Day is the culminating event of the year-round Embrace Space educational initiative, celebrating achievements, benefits and opportunities in the exploration and use of space. The event was established in 1997, commemorating President John Kennedy's famous call in May 1961 to send astronauts to the moon.

Space Day is presented by a coalition of more than 50 corporations, educational organizations and public interest groups. Scores of schools in the United States, Canada and Turkey schedule events around the Space Day theme.


This year's chief spokesman for Space Day was retired senator-astronaut John Glenn, who returned to space last year at the age of 77 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. That flight made Glenn the world's eldest astronaut, but Thursday he said that he hoped many more senior citizens would follow in his path.

The whole idea behind his flight was to study the parallels between the aging process and the effects of space flight, he pointed out. And such studies would require more than one experimental subject.

"I'm hoping that the information we get ... will be good enough that NASA will decide to go ahead, so we have an example of not just 1 person - which from a scientific standpoint doesn't prove everything - but where we have, say, 10 years from now a database of a dozen people of that age who have been up there," he said.

Glenn said data were still being collected in the wake of his October flight, and he was "looking forward to getting all the information on what we learned from this."

He admitted to feeling a little wobbly on his feet just after his landing - but said the stresses of septuagenarian space flight left no lasting effects.

"I know that I feel fine," he said, "and there's no problem with that."



    Mars Society to Offer "Haklyut Prize" for Best Studen Letter to World Leaders

    In order to stimulate useful, meritorious, and vitally important activity among young people, the Mars Society has announced that it will award the "Hakluyt Prize" for the best letter or group of letters written by a student to world political leaders making the case for initiating a humans-to-Mars program. To be eligible, contestants must be students or cadets in secondary school or college between the ages of 12 and 22. All letters to be considered must be sent either via stamped mail and/or e-mail to relevant world leaders, such as Presidents, Prime Ministers, Science Ministers, Space Agency Administrators, and elected representatives. The more leaders reached by a given contestant, the better. Copies of the letter with a list of the addresses to which it was sent should be forwarded to, or via stamped mail to Hakluyt Prize, Mars Society, Box 273, Indian Hills, CO 80454 USA. An English translation should be provided for letters written in a language other than English.

    The winner of the contest will receive a trophy and an all-expenses-paid trip to the Mars Society Founding Convention in Boulder Colorado this August. To be considered for this year's Hakluyt Prize, entries must be received by July 20, 1998. Entries received after July 20 will be considered for next year's Hakluyt Prize.

    The Hakluyt Prize is named after Richard Hakluyt, the brilliant pamphleteer, whose writings, addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Francis Walsingham, and other influentials in Tudor England convinced that country's power elite to make the policy decisions that led to the establishment of the first British colonies in North America. If not for Richard Hakluyt, the United States probably would not exist. If there is to be a human civilization on Mars in the future, there needs to be another Hakluyt today. Maybe that person is someone you know. Maybe that person is you. Start writing! The future is counting on you.


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