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Western Sierra students keep an eye on Mars

NASA education program comes to Rocklin
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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Thanks to the school’s involvement with a NASA education program, student scientists at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy have a unique opportunity to study the surface of Mars firsthand.

Two teams of students, in separate levels for middle and high school, have been spending their enrichment periods at the end of the day studying geographical images of the red planet’s surface since March 1, when the school kicked off the project at a science fair.

Beth Dixon, a science teacher at the school, said the students who volunteered for the project are poring over images and remote data provided by NASA in search of anomalies or interesting patterns using software called JMARS. She said JMARS is NASA’s own Java-based program that catalogues all previously recorded images of Mars’ surface in a geographic imaging system (GIS), vaguely akin to Google Earth but with statistical data, as well.

“There are different features on it. You have geologic processes that are there,” she said. “You can see the canyons, the craters, the wind, volcanic places, things like that.”

Using that software, Dixon said, the students will spend the next several months coming up with questions about formations and getting feedback from a NASA education specialist to refine their queries.

“They’ll work with NASA scientists and NASA education specialists and say, ‘We want to look at this particular area in this canyon, because we think that underneath it is a lava tube in this particular part. Here is all the evidence that we have that we’ve measured by looking at JMARS and looking at other pieces to say what we think is correct,’” she said. “And NASA will say, ‘We think that’s really cool, and you can improve your design by looking at this,’ and the kids will say, ‘OK, we hadn’t thought about that,’ and they’ll go back and revise.”

Once they have settled on a formal request, the students will ask NASA to point one of its Mars satellites at a specific area and take a closer picture, and if NASA approves, the students will be the first to see new images of the planet.

“The cool thing to me is that once the kids take the picture, NASA processes the image and contacts the teacher, and they’ll schedule an image download and do a live talk with the students and NASA about how they got their image to work, because they actually shoot it back from Mars with a radio frequency,” Dixon said. “They’re going to look at the images of Mars, find something they think is fascinating about it and ask a question, so they’re actually building curiosity … and they get to talk to the NASA scientist as they’re opening it and saying, ‘Here’s the picture you took. What do you see? What did you expect to see?’”

She said 540 students showed up for the initial launch on March 1, but she’s working with about 70 students now and guessed about 20 or 30 of them will see their projects through to completion.

She expects the students will be ready to submit their first round of questions in June, though they still have a way to go before they can finish a formal research proposal.

Diving into the program for the first time on Wednesday, 13-year-old Annie Bristow said she was intrigued.

“I think it’s really cool that they actually take pictures of Mars,” she said. “I just find it really appealing.”

Elizabeth Long, one of Bristow’s partners, said it was the closest thing to her professional aspiration of becoming an astronaut and walking on Mars.

“I like to be able to see the similarities between our planet and Mars, and see what geological functions could be happening on Mars,” she said.

And she wasn’t alone. Several middle and high school students who got involved with the program over the past few weeks said they did so at least partially as a matter of professional interest, or because there were no actual astronomy clubs at the school.

Fourteen-year-old Dildeep Kaine joined the program with a handful of friends after hearing about it in their daily science classes, and they spent the enrichment period looking for evidence of a habitable environment.

“I was always interested, and I always wanted to know about Mars,” he said. “And if there’s life, to prove it and discover something new.”

One of Kaine’s group members, sophomore Daelin Arney, was excited to be looking outside the pages of a textbook.

 “We go through and look for aspects (of the planet’s surface) that we think are irregular, and we’re trying to figure out what they are … We’re finding similarities and irregularities, and we’re trying to find the definition of why those happen,” he said. “It’s an alien planet. It’s awesome.”