Friday, August 10, 2012

Take a road trip to Mars!

Curiosity's panoramic image of its current position (sol 5). On the left of this image, part of the rover's power supply is visible. To the right of the power supply can be seen the pointy low-gain antenna and side of the paddle-shaped high-gain antenna for communications directly to Earth. The rim of Gale Crater is the lighter colored band across the horizon.  NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Curiosity’s” successful trip to and landing on Mars has inspired me to follow the cool-looking rover’s adventure and I would like to share what I learn on my Friday blog. If you are a teacher, I invite you to follow my blog and share with your students what Curiosity is doing and what she’s discovering as well as information about Mars and class activities. This would be a wonderful and exciting way to raise interest in science and engineering!

Visit other nonfiction blogs today at NONFICTION MONDAY, hosted by Nonfiction Detectives.

And what a better way to begin than following the fascinating explorations of the “never-give-up” rovers Spirit and Opportunity ? The twin rovers preceded Curiosity to Mars and their journey has been a rollercoaster, up with excitement, down with serious trouble, but above all a tribute to patience and perseverance on Earth and on Mars.

I am delighted to have Alexandra Siy today visiting my blog. (How do you pronounce 'Siy') She has outstanding, award-winning books about science for children including “Cars on Mars. Roving the RedPlanet.” 

I wanted to ask Alexandra about her own journey to Mars, so to speak, as she researched and wrote about Spirit and Opportunity.
Thank you, Alexandra, for sharing behind the scenes insights into what it took to write this fascinating book!

* When and how did you decide to write about the first two Mars rovers?

In the summer of 2003 Spirit and Opportunity were on their way to Mars. It was the perfect time for an encounter with a spacecraft from Earth because the planets were closer than they’d been in 60,000 years. I was camping on an island in the Adirondack wilderness and saw The Red Planet (and it was very red) in the night sky. I felt a strong connection to our nearest neighbor in the solar system, and wondered what it would be like be an explorer there. I realized I could explore Mars along with the rovers by writing a book about them.

* Why was it important for you to write about them?

I wanted to go along on the Mars road trip. I was a little kid when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. It was an extraordinary event, one that I remember vividly. The Mars rovers are like the Apollo Moon mission for today’s kids—but unlike going to the Moon and back, which takes about a week, going to Mars and exploring the planet takes years. There is a mountain of information and hundreds of thousands of images available from NASA. Children can experience the excitement and drama of the Mars missions in a book that has been carefully researched and designed. 

* What was the hardest thing to accomplish? (getting interviews or other sources, finding a kid-friendly angle, deciding how to organize and present the enormous amount of information, finding a publisher, other?)

My publisher accepted my proposal several years before I wrote the book. The mission was supposed to last about 90 days, but the rovers kept on going for years. I kept asking my editor for an extension because the rovers were discovering new things everyday. Finally, after three years, we decided it was time to tell the story of Spirit and Opportunity. I had just moved from Alaska to New York. My cross continental journey became inspiration for the book. I was really struggling to find a great title…and when “Cars on Mars” popped into my head, I instantly had the format for organizing the book in a kid friendly way. This was a “far-out” road trip, and road trips are fun, exciting, and really cool. I listened to road trip music while looking at the images from Mars. I felt like I was along for the ride! I ate road trip snacks, and even felt a little “carsick” after staring at Martian landscapes for hours and hours…I really felt like I was on Mars. I hope kids who read my book get that feeling of being on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity.

* Did you have the opportunity to talk to some of the people who made this possible?

I talked with Jim Bell, the scientist who creates the color panoramic images. He wrote a fabulous coffee table book called Postcards from Mars. 
I also talked to Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the mission, whose book Roving Mars provided me with an inside look at the mission. Steve is quoted throughout my book. These quotes were from NASA press releases. Steve always had great quotes that fit perfectly into what I was trying to say. I also visited Honeybee Labs in NYC, which is the company that designs and builds the RAT (rock abrasion tool). I watched while one of the engineers controlled the operation of the RAT from computers in their offices.

*What was your favorite part of writing Cars on Mars?
I loved writing this book. While I was writing, my imagination took me to Mars. Everyday I looked forward to going into my office to write. I felt like I was leaving Earth behind and entering an unknown place. When I was finished writing the book I still didn’t have chapter titles. They were just numbered. I had to come up with titles, but I couldn’t think of anything that sounded good. Then, I reminded myself that I had been on a road trip. (When you need help on a road trip you go on Google to “Get Directions.”) Get Directions became the heading for the table of contents page, and I wrote all the chapter titles as actual directions describing what was going on in each chapter. I loved how everything came together in the end.

5. Could you give us a hint of you current writing projects? Where will you take us next?
Currently I am finishing a book about spiders called Spiderbook. Spiders are fascinating, and so is the fact that a lot of people are afraid of them. This title will be illustrated with electron micrographs (in the same style of my recent book BUG SHOTS: TheGood the Bad, and the Bugly). 
When I’m finished with Spiderbook this fall, I plan to write about my exploration of the ancient bristlecone forests in the Great Basin. This was an extraordinary adventure of discovery. Imagine trees that are still thriving at 5,000 years old! These are the oldest living organisms on the planet and have stories to tell…I want to write these stories, I want to give the trees a voice. I’m also working on another outer space adventure featuring spaceships and awesome space photography (but I will keep that book title a secret for now). And of course, I’d love to write a book about Curiosity on Mars. I guess that sounds like a sequel!

6.  What's your message to young readers who are considering science as their field of study?

Alexandra looking for bristlecones to tell her their story.
(© A. Siy)

Well, I hope my books inspire children to want to learn about the world. That’s what science is all about. Some people say science is difficult and boring…I don’t get this! Science is endlessly exciting. There is art in science (just look at the images sent to Earth by Spirit and Opportunity, and now Curiosity). I would tell my readers to not only read, but also to become observers of the world. I would tell them to look closely at phenomena in nature and to ask questions. New discoveries are being made all the time—scientists are both critical and creative thinkers. They are also artists.
Thank you!
Thank you, Alexandra, for your inspiration, hard work and fascinating books. I wish you much success. I can’t wait to know the stories a 5,000 year old tree has to tell! WOW! This will be truly traveling back in time.
Visit Alexandra’swebsite for more information about her books, her school visits, and other projects. Did you know she’s also a wonderful photographer? 

And now, what is going on with Curiosity?
This full-resolution self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation cameras. The back of the rover can be seen at the top left of the image, and two of the rover's right side wheels can be seen on the left. See those little black dots on top? They are 1 cm  (0.4 inches) long pebbles that fell on it during landing. So far, they are not a problem. NASA/JPL-Caltech
As you are reading this post, Curiosity stays put on a desert-like Martian landscape (it’s so cool I am writing this, and it’s nonfiction!). Three hundred and so million miles away on Earth (where you are sitting) scientists and engineers have sent new software to Curiosity’s computers and are in the process of checking all instruments are go. This will take a few days. In the mean time, Curiosity is not shy with her camera keeping NASA people busy putting together hundreds of images that reveal a not so ‘alien’ landscape.

For the classroom:
If you are on Mars, a day, or the time it takes the planet to complete is full rotation or spin around its axis, is called a “sol”. One sol is about 39 minutes longer than a day on earth. Today is sol 5 of Curiosity’s mission.

Cool stuff: some of the scientists and engineers of the Mars mission wear a watch specially made to be on Mars time. Some of them wear two watches on their wrists: one on Mars time and the other on Earth time. No excuse to be late anywhere!

Visit other science blogs today at NONFICTION MONDAY. Hosted by Nonfiction Detectives.

Monday, August 6, 2012

NASA's “Curiosity” lands safely on Mars!

That´s why Curiosity is so large (right), compared to Spirit/Opportunity (left, 2004) and Sojourner (1997). It takes a car-sized rover to carry so many tools.NASA/JPL-Caltech

I watched the NASA TV channel as the car-seized rover “Curiosity” landed just as planned on the Martian surface shortly after 12:30 am (CST) on August 6th. And soon after it sent the first two photos! One showed the Martian landscape and one of the rover’s wheels on the right-hand side. The second photo included “Curiosity’s” silhouette. It’s hard to grasp that we can see almost right away images of what is millions of miles away!

The first photo "Curiosity" sent to earth. Notice the rover's wheel on the right corner.  First visual confirmation that the landing was a success. NASA
Dust sprinkled “Curiosity’s” camera lenses. It came from the ground the rockets stirred as they helped the almost 2,000 pound rover touchdown safely. You have to see the video of the simulation of the landing process. It was quite a different type of landing in comparison with the previous ones. Instead of dropping the rover inside a bouncing ball, a hovering crane dropped it on the ground. Check out this link to learn more about the mission. Kids would love to see this.

This milestone is nothing less than a major achievement of science and engineering and to complement the NASA link above I suggest the two books I show here. They are about the first two Mars rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity,” for younger (left) and older readers.
Congratulations to all involved in this amazing mission. I can’t wait to learn more about “Curiosity’s” findings. Are there (were there) any microbes on Mars? Stay tuned!
Learning about this mission could be an engaging way to introduce students to space exploration, the planet Mars, and all the physics and engineering basics that support this outstanding achievement. What a source of inspiration for young scientists everywhere! I wonder, where will they take us next?

Great review for "The Mighty Mars Rovers."

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Friday, August 3, 2012

Sally Ride (1951-2012), a true inspiration for present and future generations of women.

"When I was a girl, I had a teacher who encouraged my interest in science. She challenged me to be curious, to ask questions, and to think about things for myself. She helped build my self-confidence. All of these helped me to become a scientist and an astronaut.” — Sally Ride, Ph.D. 1951-2012.

Sally Ride was a physicist and the first American woman in space and from this platform she reached toward countless girls and young women (and not so young too) to inspire them to prepare themselves for the future studying science and engineering. A future not too far ahead, since the U.S. Department of Labor Workforce projections indicate that 15 of the 20 fastest growing occupations in 2014 will require significant science or mathematics training to successfully compete for a job. Are we ready for this?

STEM education is hot. It’s a need that's not been fulfilled. Sally Ride Science festivals are tremendous mind-changing programs for young girls. And young girls love science. I know it. I have participated in the Houston festivals and the classes and events are always packed. After my talks, young scientists-in-the making approached me with questions, bursting with excitement. What an inspiration for those of us trying to inspire our young audience!

Sally Ride has left us with an tremendous example of dedication and hard work that any girl and young woman can look up to when following their dreams. I am looking forward to being part of the festival this fall and also to continue my contribution to inspire and educate young minds with my writings about science, nature and technology.

Sally Ride reached for the stars and touched them. It can be done! One day at a time. One class at a time. One book at a time. One girl at a time.

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