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The Planetary Society Announces Flight Tests of Winning Student Experiments


Mat Kaplan
Phone: +1-626-793-5100

What's smaller than a dime yet can investigate an alien world? Two winning experiments from The Planetary Society's Student NanoExperiment Challenge.

In 1999 The Planetary Society, at the request of the Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment (MECA) team and in cooperation with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, invited young people worldwide to submit prototypes for the first student designed experiment on Mars. Participants had to be18 years of age or younger and not yet in college. The experiments selected would be incorporated into the MECA experiment package, then scheduled for launch on the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander mission.

From the prototypes submitted, two were selected for construction in flight test materials. Lucas Moller, from Russell Elementary School in Moscow, Idaho, submitted an experiment to measure the angle of avalanche of Martian dust. A team of two Kelly Trowbridge and Jessica Sherman from Lansing Middle School in Lansing, New York designed an experiment to test how textured copper will weather in the Martian atmosphere.

The results of both experiments have importance to future Mars exploration. Dust in the harsh Martian environment is hazardous to the operation of equipment. Knowing the angle that Martian dust avalanches off surfaces, would allow engineers to design machines or solar panels that would allow dust to fall off and not affect them. The textured copper experiment will help show how suitable the metal is for use on Mars by measuring the rate of corrosion and oxidation in the Martian atmosphere, as well as how dust settles on its surface.

A key element of the Student NanoExperiment Challenge was the concept that great things can come in small packages. Experiments had to be compact enough to fit within a cylinder that was one (1) centimeter in diameter by one (1) centimeter in height. Total mass allowance was three (3) grams or less. The experiments also had to be self-contained, since no power from the lander would be available to power the student experiments.

The results of a NanoExperiment had to be something that could be observed by the camera located on the robotic arm of the lander.

If the selected student experiments pass all future flight tests, their experiment test materials will be affixed to the same plate that houses MECA's patches that will test how the Martian environment affects different materials, including spacesuit fabrics. This experiment is designed to help us better understand how humans will one day be able to survive on Mars.

"These tiny experiments are a way for promising young space scientists --children -- to accomplish meaningful research through their talent and perseverance. I wish I had been offered such an opportunity when I was a young student," said Tom Meloy of West Virginia University, the Principal Investigator for MECA.

Other MECA team advisors for the Student Nano Experiment Challenge include Michael Hecht of JPL and Kimberly Kuhlman of the California Institute of Technology.

In addition to designing and building a prototype experiment, entrants in the Student NanoExperiment Challenge had to submit a written summary of the experiment that was 350 words or less. Each student also had to maintain a journal that documented the development of his/her experiment, which needed to be submitted upon request to the Student Nano Experiment Challenge judges.

The Student NanoExperiment Challenge judging committee comprised of staff members from the Planetary Society, scientists and engineers from the MECA team, and educators selected ten finalists from all qualifying entries. From those finalists, two experiments were selected to have flight ready units built. The Planetary Society funded the building of the actual flight units, including the cost of materials, construction and testing.

MECA was scheduled to fly on the now cancelled Mars Surveyor 2001 lander. No final decision has been made about reflight or about the next lander mission. If the 2001 lander is used for the 2003 mission, then the MECA experiment will probably be part of that mission. The decision on the 2003lander is expected by August of this year.

The experiments have already undergone initial flight tests. More will be scheduled in the future when a new launch date is set for MECA. A new contest to select additional student experiments may also be announced when a launch date is set.

The Student Nanoexperiment Student Challenge was part of The Planetary Society's Red Rover Goes to Mars project, planned to directly involve students in the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander mission. Red Rover Goes to Mars is partially sponsored by the LEGO company.

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