During Mars Day, Salt River Elementary School students participate in a hands-on learning session presented by staff from ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility.
Mars Day at Salt River Elementary School
By Richie Corrales
Au-Authm Action News

On November 10, students at Salt River Elementary School (SRES) participated in Mars Day, with activities held throughout the school.

Mars Day started off with an assembly outside on the basketball courts. The morning’s sessions included hands-on learning sessions in the Music Room for grades 3 to 6, conducted by Arizona State University’s (ASU) Mars Space Flight Facility; a demonstration on a 3-D printer; and the Star Lab experience for students in kindergarten through second grade in the Education Board Room, presented by ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

In the hands-on session, students learned what living on Mars might be like and whether we can make it a reality someday. There were discussions on the red planet and what it’s really like, and how different it is from Earth in terms of the length of a Mars day (24 hours, 39 minutes) and how many days are in a Mars year (687). Students who are 10 years old on Earth would be about five years old on Mars.

Students also learned that the force of gravity on Mars is less than half of Earth’s gravity, meaning you can jump twice as high there. Mars has a carbon dioxide atmosphere, compared with oxygen on Earth. The temperature on Mars gets as cold as minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Like Earth, Mars has mountains and canyons, but many are twice as large as those on Earth.

The keynote speaker of Mars Day was Zac Wilson, a mechanical engineer and chief engineer on a simulated Mars mission called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), which was the second of three NASA-funded missions run by the University of Hawaii. The study, which focused on the psychological impact of a mission to Mars, involved six people living for eight months in a self-sustaining dome on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, which simulated the surface of Mars.

Wilson focused on figuring out what kinds of people are well suited to take on a long-duration space mission and be able to work while isolated from the rest of the world.

“That started last October, and I just finished in June of this year,” said Wilson about his HI-SEAS experience. “Today we are doing Mars Day, and it’s a day to do some outreach, which is also a part of our mission for the students of all age groups.”

Wilson’s goal is trying to get students interested in science, math, engineering and technology. “Mars is still a ways off, and it’s very important to encourage the next generation to be interested in [science and space exploration] because they are going to either be the ones who will be going there or designing the rockets to fly there,” said Wilson. “We just want to show the cool stuff the kids can look forward to if they study in these areas.”

Wilson has been interested in space since college at the University of Colorado, where he earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. He then went on to Imperial College in London for his master’s degree.

Here Wilson answers some question about his experience with the HI-SEAS Mars simulation.

Q: How did you find out about this Mars study?

A: I was reading a blog on how there was going to be a simulation of a research station on Mars and how they were looking for crew members. This was after I finished my master’s degree, so I didn’t have much going on, and I thought, “Oh, this sounds cool!” I applied and was accepted to the one last year.

Q: What should young students do to prepare for careers in science and space exploration?

A: [When I was young,] I liked Legos and taking stuff apart, which led me into science and engineering. There is a huge range of [careers] you can do with that background. NASA is a huge inspiration; even when people don’t necessarily make it to NASA [as astronauts or mission specialists], they become engineers, scientists or doctors somewhere else, and people find their own calling once they are headed in that direction.

Q; What was your job while you were living in the dome in Hawaii?

A: You have to wear a lot of hats when there are just six of you. You cannot know just one job—everybody has to know a little bit of everything in case one of you gets sick. I was the chief engineer, which meant I was dealing with solar cells, the computer systems and that kind of stuff. But we all took turns, cooking dinner, being the executive officer communicating with mission support, and being the chief scientist collecting the data to send back to the universities that are interested in that study. So everyone has to have one backup to do their jobs, because you can get burned out doing just one job. In the dome, everyone had their own bedroom space with a desk, and the rest of the dome was open. Along with the kitchen, all together it was 1,600 square feet with a high ceiling.

Q: What would a Mars mission look like today?

A: With the current technology that is available, it would take eight months to get from Earth to Mars. Once you are there, you would have two options: stay there for a few weeks or even a month and come right back, or stay for a year and wait for the [Earth and Mars] orbits to line up again. There is still discussion on what is more reasonable, because it takes 16 months of travel to get to Mars and spend just one month there.

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Mars Day at Salt River Elementary School