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Planetary Society's Student Nanoexperiments Will Help Future Astronauts on Mars


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

Smaller than a dime yet big enough to study another world, two student-designed nanoexperiments to investigate conditions on Mars for future human explorers will debut in a presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, March 11-15, 2002.

Students Lucas Möller, 13, and the team of Kelly Trowbridge, 15, and Jessica Sherman, 15, won the opportunity in The Planetary Society's Nanoexperiment Challenge to have their experiments built for flight on a future mission to Mars. The Nanoexperiment Challenge is now named SNOOPY, the acronym for Student Nanoexperiments for Outreach and Observational Planetary Inquiry.

"SNOOPY gave students a chance to make something directly for Mars exploration," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society. "Our goal is to involve more people in the adventure of planetary exploration - and designing an experiment for future human exploration is the grandest adventure of all."

The Planetary Society held the contest in 1999 in cooperation with the Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment (MECA) Experiment team and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Young people worldwide were invited to submit proposals and prototypes for the first student-designed experiment on Mars. The SNOOPY experiments were required to be consistent with MECA's Mission: to help us better understand how humans will be able to live on Mars.

SNOOPY Experiments

Möller, from Moscow Junior High School in Moscow, Idaho, submitted an experiment to measure the angle of avalanche of Martian dust. Trowbridge and Sherman, students at Lansing High School in Lansing, New York, designed an experiment to test how textured copper will weather in the dust-filled Martian atmosphere.

The experiments were originally to be incorporated into the MECA experiment package, which contained patches designed to test how the Martian environment affects different materials, including spacesuit fabrics. MECA and SNOOPY were originally scheduled to fly on the cancelled Mars Surveyor 2001 lander mission. The SNOOPY experiments are now ready to hitch a ride on an alternate mission. Possibilities could include Britain's Beagle 2 on the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission, France's Netlander, or NASA's Mars landers or Scout missions.

SNOOPY results had to be something that could be observed by the camera located on the robotic arm of the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander and require no power or commands from the spacecraft. From the prototypes submitted, two were selected for construction for flight testing.

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. Plus, the experiments needed to be self-contained, since no power from the lander would be available to power the student experiments.

The Planetary Society funded the building of the actual flight units, including the cost of materials, construction and testing. Visionary Products, Inc. of Utah built the flight test units.

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.

MECA Advisers

MECA team advisors for SNOOPY include Kimberly Kuhlman of JPL, J. R. Marshall of the SETI Institute, A. M. Waldron and C. A. Batt of the Nanobiotechnology Center at Cornell University, Michael Hecht of JPL and Tom Meloy of West Virginia University, the Principal Investigator for MECA. Martin Towner of Open University was also an advisor for SNOOPY.

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