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So SMAART Girls Take on Solar Superior Conjunction

October 10, 2019

Thanks to NASA's Speakers Bureau, Dallas-area girls tackled the challenge of Solar Superior Conjunctions (SSCs) and their effect on human missions to Mars. Dr. Robert Howard, NASA manager for the Center for Design and Space Architecture within the Human Health and Performance Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, conducted the outreach activity on Sept. 21 at the So SMAART kickoff for the Trinity (TX) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, at the University of North Texas at Dallas. 

So SMAART—which stands for Set on Science and Engineering, Mathematics, the Arts, Aviation, Reading and Technology—is an early intervention program established in 2000 by the Trinity (TX) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, which mentors girls in fourth through eighth grades and addresses the lack of minority female students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Currently, through a partnership with the Dallas Independent School District, the Trinity (TX) chapter conducts the So SMAART program at Thomas L. Marsalis Elementary School and the William Hawley Atwell Law Academy. The program provides meaningful, non-traditional career awareness education, workshop learning, field experiences and hands-on learning. 

Howard set up a NASA exhibit and conducted a hands-on activity he created for the So SMAART girls, taken directly from work he is performing at Johnson as a team member on the Mars Integration Group (MIG). An SSC is when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun, with the Sun blocking line of sight between the two planets. Communications are interrupted during an SSC, with the outage lasting weeks to months (depending on the type of communication being used). Generally, higher data rates have the longest outage, and optical communications can be interrupted for 60 to 70 days. An SSC occurs roughly every 26 months, which effectively guarantees that most human Mars missions will experience one.

An SSC poses a potential risk for loss of crew and is thus an important issue for the MIG. Howard asked the So SMAART girls for their help in solving this critical problem astronauts will face on missions to the Red Planet. He then engaged the girls in a small-group activity that simulated an SSC and one possible means of mitigating the communications outage.

During the exercise, five students were selected to represent the sun and four inner solar system planets. The floor was marked to indicate the position of the sun and the orbital paths (to scale) of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Students representing Earth and Mars were given flashlights. Shining the flashlights at each other represented mission control, from Earth, talking to the crew on Mars.

The “planets” were then set in motion, with the students told to walk along their particular path.  Whenever Earth and Mars could see each other’s flashlights, it meant that the crew and mission control could communicate. Students were then told to stop when their motion carried Earth and Mars to opposite sides of the sun, representing an SSC. Earth and Mars could not see each other’s flashlights at that point.

Howard explained how this could be a problem on Mars. If a major medical or maintenance problem occurred during this time, it would be impossible to get help from mission control. The remaining participants were used to illustrate a solution and given flashlights. Positioned at the solar L5 point for each planet (Mercury-Sun L5, Venus-Sun L5, Earth-Sun L5 and Mars-Sun L5), they then had their choice of relay satellites to use to complete a communications link from Mars to Earth during an SSC.

Students used a tape measure to measure the distances for each possible communications path: Mars to Mars-L5 to Earth, Mars to Earth-L5 to Earth, Mars to Venus-L5 to Earth, and Mars to Mercury-L5 to Earth. After recording these distances on a data sheet, they used a calculator and a supplied conversion factor to convert the distance to Astronomical Units, and then calculated the communications delay for each path, demonstrating that the location of the relay satellite does affect the communications delay time.

The girls were also able to ask questions of Howard and interact with the NASA display, which included a space shuttle stack model, lunar surface habitat scale model, Extravehicular Activity glove and space food samples.

Since the inception of So SMAART, the Trinity (TX) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, has given more than 1,300 girls insight into career opportunities in STEM. The program has been recognized as a best practice program for The Links, Incorporated, at several Western Area Conferences and National Assemblies, and has received numerous awards and grants from corporate foundations. The chapter also further tracks graduates of their program into high school. 

Most recently, the Trinity (TX) chapter sponsored and mentored high school student Chelsea Guidry, which allowed her to participate in the “59 for the Future” program established by the Western Area of The Links, Incorporated. That platform provides opportunities to expand knowledge of global issues, enhance critical thinking and problem-solving skills and improve public speaking for female high school students. Guidry, a straight-A student who aspires to be an engineer, plans to major in mechanical engineering at either Prairie View A&M University or North Carolina A&T State University, with interest in a potential career at NASA.

NASA's Johnson Space Center Speakers Bureau comprises engineers, scientists, managers and other professionals who represent the center and agency at civic, professional, educational and other public events. To learn more, click HERE.

A combination of NASA exhibits and artifacts, along with an engaging hands-on learning activity, entranced the young learners who took part in the So SMAART program in late September. Image courtesy of Dr. Robert Howard.
A combination of NASA exhibits and artifacts, along with an engaging hands-on learning activity, entranced the young learners who took part in the So SMAART program in late September. Image courtesy of Dr. Robert Howard.