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Students use Legos to learn about Mars

MATT ROBLES/Arizona Summer Wildcat
Third-grade campers Aleem Zaki and Skylar Bloom demonstrate to their peers the workings of their Lego gears as Parent Program coordinator Katy Wilkins looks on. The summer program gives students a chance to understand how robots are used to explore places like Mars by giving them the chance to build their own rover with the use of Legos and programming software.
By Evan Pelligrino
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
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This week, third, fourth and fifth-graders are getting the chance to build a space rover, just like NASA engineers.

During a weeklong camp, in addition to learning about solar system exploration, children are discovering the basics of robotics through building and programming Lego-bots.

These aren't your everyday Legos. The rovers built by campers contain moving parts, thanks to a system of gears and a built-in computer, said Doug Lombardi, education and public outreach manager for the Phoenix Mars Mission and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

The kids will create programming from an outside computer and then transfer the encoding to the bots' onboard system using infrared technology.

The camp is sponsored in part by UA's Phoenix Mars Mission.

The mission, in association with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is slated to launch in August 2007 and is the UA's first sponsored mission to Mars, according to the Phoenix Mars Mission Web site.

Although the UA won't be sending Legos to Mars, some of the basic principles campers are using are comparable to the technology that will be used to probe the red planet.

We're going vertical. Doug Lombardi, education and public outreach manager

The process of programming is "very similar," Lombardi said.

Lombardi said he is teaching the campers about the mission as well as other explorations in space.

The UA's long-armed stationary lander that will be sent to Mars will not have wheels like the rovers the children are building, but the way campers use a computer to program tasks for the rover is the same process UA scientists will use to help probe the north pole of Mars for potential life, past or present, Lombardi said.

When the UA's lander reaches the Martian arctic in May 2008, a computer on Earth will send signals to the lander instructing it to perform a wealth of tasks it was programmed to execute, according to the mission's Web site.

"We're going vertical," Lombardi said.

The lander's robotic arm will dig a trench one meter deep on the Martian surface in order to carry out an assortment of "wet chemistry experiments" on Martian material below the surface, Lombardi explained.

The experiments are like what high school students might do in a basic chemistry class, mixing water and chemicals in a beaker and testing the results.

The lander will bring a sample of water from earth and will use it to test the composition of Martian land, measured by a sophisticated and sensitive mass spectrometer, Lombardi said.

The lander, which can be thought of as a mini-chemistry lab on Mars, will examine the icy plains of Mars' cold environment for potential life within the water ice. The lander will also carry a built-in weather station and a hi-resolution camera.

As young campers become inspired through creating Lego rovers, grown-up scientists are also building instruments and programming computers right here on campus that will expand humankind's knowledge of the solar system, Lombardi said.

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