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March 28, 2008

Media Contacts:

Jennifer Huergo
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
240-228-5618 or 443-778-5618

High School Students Help Explore Mars through Innovative Program

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CRISM image
CRISM image
CRISM image
CRISM image
Credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

While most kids can only read about Mars exploration, four groups of high school students from around the country are getting the chance to plan observations of the Red Planet and join the science team analyzing data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

The students are participating in a project called the Mars Exploration Student Data Teams (MESDT), which is run by Arizona State University as a key educational component of NASA's Mars Public Engagement Program. They are using real data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) flying aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and managed by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. The primary mission of CRISM is to search for mineral traces of ancient water as it images the planet in up to 544 wavelengths of light.

The student teams are from:

  • Durham Academy and nearby public schools in Durham, N.C.
  • John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Mo.
  • Livonia Central School in Livonia, N.Y.

"Two goals of MESDT are to provide high school students the opportunity to perform authentic science and to take student-directed research to the next level, and they've certainly done that," says MESDT project leader Brian Grigsby of Arizona State University's Mars Education Program. "It's really fascinating to see how the teams vary in their approaches because they are coming from different technical situations, yet all are doing a fantastic job."

The students first analyzed data taken by CRISM in its low-resolution, mapping mode, focusing on a region of ancient rocks in Mars' southern highlands. They identified various mineral deposits and developed hypotheses to explain how the deposits might have formed. The students then planned targeted observations by CRISM, with ten times the spatial resolution of the initial images. The first two student-selected observations were taken, downloaded and processed in February, and the teams are working with their mentors to analyze the results. Two additional sites have been identified and added to CRISM's observing schedule.

Each team has an adult advisor from their school and a mentor from the CRISM science team. The students use the same software used by CRISM researchers, a program called ACT-REACT which was customized specifically for the mission by Applied Coherent Technology Inc., in Herndon, Va.

 "We've been really impressed by the students' enthusiasm and ability to master complex concepts and software," says Kim Seelos, a member of the CRISM science team at APL and mentor to one of the teams. "Working with us allows them to see how the scientific process works, while they also get a chance to make real contributions to an important NASA mission."

Some team members even got the chance to show off their work in a poster session at the 39th Lunar and Planetary Sciences Meeting in Houston in March. "The students are doing authentic work and making valid discoveries," says Dawn Turney, of APL's space education and outreach program. "It was therefore an important part of the experience that they had the chance to participate in a conference and experience that aspect of a scientist's work."

The MESDT curriculum is aligned with the National Science Education Standards and was designed to fit within existing science curriculum, teaching required objectives and standards using real-world science rather than worksheets or simulations. The program plans to expand beyond the four pilot schools for the 2008-2009 school year.

For more information about the Mars Exploration Student Data Teams, including information about how to apply for the program, please visit:

The Applied Physics Laboratory, which has built more than 150 spacecraft instruments over the past four decades, built and now operates CRISM. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, Colo., is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft.

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For information, visit