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: â€œI am not actually on Mars. Iâ€™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.â€
JM: Whatâ€™s a NASA engineer doing in a playground all day? Iâ€™m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Suparna Mukherjee is a mechanical engineer at NASAâ€™s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. Suparna can test equipment sheâ€™s developing in a giant sandbox that simulates the Martian environment.
SM: â€œThe soil on Mars has been blown around for a very, very long time, so thereâ€™s a lot more fine particles of dust. When they fall, theyâ€™ll stay lofted in the air. When you have really fine, fine dust, it just gets thrown up, and itâ€™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 weâ€™re building and the tools for digging all work well. This is a very similar particle size to the dust on Mars.â€
JM: The soil material Suparna uses comes from the cone of a Hawaiian volcano thatâ€™s been cited as a close match to the sandy surface of Marsboth visually and compositionally, right down to its magnetic properties.--
SM: â€œWhen 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 thatâ€™s how we verified the magnetic properties of the soil on Mars.â€
JM: The first thousand kids to submit an idea to our annual Kidsâ€™ 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 Planetâ€™s Kidsâ€™ Science Challenge is made possible by the National Science Foundation. Iâ€™m Jim Metzner.