Airdate: Nov 10, 2009
Scientist: Suparna Mukherjee,
Kids' Science Challenge: Mars - Playground
In lieu of traveling to the Red Planet, scientists can experiment in a California-based Mars playground!
SM: “I am not actually on Mars. I’m here at the lab in one of our own little Mars playgrounds. We are testing all sorts of things that we will hopefully one day send to Mars.”
JM: What’s a NASA engineer doing in a playground all day? I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Suparna Mukherjee is a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. Suparna can test equipment she’s developing in a giant sandbox that simulates the Martian environment.
SM: “The soil on Mars has been blown around for a very, very long time, so there’s a lot more fine particles of dust. When they fall, they’ll stay lofted in the air. When you have really fine, fine dust, it just gets thrown up, and it’ll stay in the air for a long time in the atmosphere. This stuff is actually what we call a Mars simulant. We use this to do our tests here on Earth to make sure that the rovers that we’re building and the tools for digging all work well. This is a very similar particle size to the dust on Mars.”
JM: The soil material Suparna uses comes from the cone of a Hawaiian volcano that’s been cited as a close match to the sandy surface of Marsboth visually and compositionally, right down to its magnetic properties.--
SM: “When we sent our last rover to Mars, there was a tool at the end of the robotic arm that we used to grind away rocks, and when we ground away the rocks, we ended up getting a little bit of powder. At the front end of that tool there was a bunch of magnets, and they found that material stuck to it, and that’s how we verified the magnetic properties of the soil on Mars.”
JM: The first thousand kids to submit an idea to our annual Kids’ Science Challenge competition will be sent a sample of the very sand that engineers use to mimic the Martian environment. Log on to kidsciencechallenge.com for more information. Pulse of the Planet’s Kids’ Science Challenge is made possible by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.