The Planetary Society and the LEGO Company announce a new Mars exploration adventure that debuts today: the Astrobot Diaries - featuring Biff Starling and Sandy Moondust - and the Mars Stations. The programs enable young people and adults alike to journey vicariously to the Red Planet with NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission.
"As the MER spacecraft launches tomorrow, we also launch two programs to engage students and the general public directly in the mission, through reading fun, fictional diaries and through driving rovers." said Planetary Society Director of Projects, Bruce Betts.
"The Astrobot Diaries and the Mars Stations are wonderful tools to bring the excitement and the dream of space exploration closer to children all over the world," said Brad Justus, Senior Vice President of the LEGO Company, "Being exposed to relevant, fact based information in a playful and engaging way is by far the best way to learn. Kids feel empowered and develop problem solving skills while expanding their creativity and imagination - qualities that are at the very heart of our brand and of our beliefs."
The Planetary Society's Red Rover Goes to Mars project was selected by NASA as the first education experiment on a planetary exploration mission. With the support of the LEGO Company and donations from Society members, the programs are privately funded.
Bolted to each of NASA's two Mars Exploration Rover spacecraft is a mini-DVD provided by The Planetary Society to carry to the surface of Mars the names of 4 million people collected by NASA. The Astrobots, representations of robotic minifigures suited up for space, appear as part of the structure that mounts the mini-DVD onto each spacecraft.
The Planetary Society held a contest to name the Astrobots, and the two mini-robot explorers will launch to Mars as Biff Starling and Sandy Moondust, names submitted by Cindy Rossetto of Grants Pass, Oregon, whose entry was chosen from over 1000 contest submissions.
Once the spacecraft launch - the first is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral tomorrow, June 8, with Biff aboard - the Astrobots will begin transmitting back to Earth diaries of their adventures for children and interested adults to enjoy on The Planetary Society's and LEGO Company's websites.
These regularly posted Web diaries will intersperse humor with scientific and engineering facts to teach kids and the general public about Mars and the Mars Exploration Rover mission as Biff and Sandy explore the spacecraft and, eventually, the planet's surface. The Astrobots will describe what they discover in personal and entertaining ways to engage readers worldwide more deeply in the adventure of planetary exploration.
The diaries or portions of the diaries will appear in four places: in full at The Planetary Society's web site; as titles and summaries at the LEGO website; as short versions in LEGO Magazine; and as excerpts in the Society's member publication, The Planetary Report.
Mars Stations will enable anyone with a Web browser to drive a small rover made of LEGO bricks across a simulated Mars terrain, exploring the miniature landscape remotely via images from a rover-mounted camera. Each Mars Station diorama is associated with an actual location on Mars - such as Olympus Mons or Gusev crater, the MER A landing site - and will include surface features and a backdrop reminiscent of that locale. Driving a LEGO rover remotely via computer lets participants experience what it is like for spacecraft engineers to explore a distant planet with a rover.
The Planetary Society today opens the beta testing phase of the Mars Stations software, and invites the public to explore the four stations now operating online, and to offer feedback to the Society about the software. The four Mars Stations are located at The Planetary Society's headquarters in Pasadena, California; at the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain; at Bishop Museum in Hawaii; and at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
Boeing is partnering with The Planetary Society to help conduct beta testing on Mars Stations by utilizing the expertise of employee volunteers. Boeing volunteers will also construct a Mars Station at a California facility. In an existing Boeing program, Boeing engineers visit schools in their local communities to talk about science. This program will be adapted to include information about Mars and to conduct online demonstrations of Mars Stations in the classroom.
While each Mars Station will be centrally coordinated through The Planetary Society, they will be located around the world at museums, schools, universities and other sites. More stations will come online in the months leading up to the landing of the Mars Exploration Rover spacecraft in January 2004.
Mars Stations are based on the Red Rover, Red Rover project, developed by The Planetary Society, the LEGO Company, and Visionary Products, Inc. Red Rover, Red Rover is a curriculum package that allows classrooms to build small rovers out of LEGO bricks and a camera, build a Mars diorama, and drive their rovers in that terrain. They can also partner with other classrooms and drive those classrooms' rovers remotely over the Internet. Mars Stations expands this so anyone with a web browser can drive a rover in a simulated Mars terrain.