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Hey, kids! Join a space mission

The call is going out for high-school students, and even elementary-school kids and college undergraduates, to take part in missions to Saturn and Mars.

If you have your heart set on Saturn, you can enter the "Cassini Scientist for a Day" contest, which is open to U.S. students in grades 5 through 12. And if you're mad about Mars, you can apply to be part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Teams, open to high-school and college students. Just last month, students involved in that program presented their research at the prestigious Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

"We've been really impressed by the students' enthusiasm and ability to master complex concepts and software," Kim Seelos, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory and a mentor to one of the Mars research teams, said in a news release. "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."

Both missions have been sending back important scientific data: The Red Planet program has students work with data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Saturn program aims to get kids involved with the scientists and engineers behind the Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons.

Be a Saturn scientist
On June 10, Cassini is scheduled to target Saturn's icy moons Rhea and Enceladus, as well as a region of Saturn's rings that includes the tiny shepherd moon Pan - all in the space of 55 minutes. The students entering the "Scientist for a Day" contest will turn in essays explaining in 500 words or less which image would be the most scientifically interesting.

NASA / JPL-Caltech
Accompanied by their teacher, Kathy Cooper,
students from Shirley Avenue Elementary School
in Reseda, Calif., gather in front of a half-scale
model of the Cassini spacecraft at NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. The students participated
in the pilot edition of "Cassini Scientist for a Day."

"It's a really fun way for kids to learn about Saturn and what the mission is doing," Rachel Zimmerman-Brachman, an education and public outreach specialist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said last week. "Students have to do their own research to write their essay. That way, they learn how to ask questions about the solar system and what we still need to understand."

If I had to pick just one of those three targets, it'd be Enceladus: Cassini has already sent back data showing that geysers of water ice are spewing forth from fissures in the moon's south polar region - features that have been nicknamed "tiger stripes." Liquid water, and perhaps even some form of life, may exist beneath the moon's icy surface. Cassini will be in a good position to get a look at the moon's south pole during the June 10 opportunity.

Although Enceladus would be my prime target, the other two targets are anything but boring: Scientists recently found that Rhea may have a set of mini-rings reminiscent of Saturn's own. Studying the saucer-shaped Pan may yield new insights about the origin and development of those stunning rings. So there's plenty to write about, no matter which target you pick. Just be sure you get your essay in by the May 8 deadline.

A panel of scientists, mission planners and educators will judge the essays, and the winners will be invited to a teleconference with Cassini scientists. Everyone who sends in a valid entry for the contest will receive a certificate of participation. Check out NASA's Cassini Web site for complete information and rules.

Join the Mars team
The program for Mars Exploration Student Data Teams is organized by NASA and Arizona State University, and focuses on the data being sent back by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, or CRISM. The spectrometer is an instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that can reveal the composition of Mars' surface and even identify the ingredients of the planet's atmosphere.

This year, the program worked with four pilot schools in Missouri, New York and North Carolina.

"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," 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."

This job requires much more than a 500-word essay: The students are given low-resolution data from CRISM, and on the basis of their analysis, targeted observations are made at higher resolution. One study mapped potential evidence of volcanic activity on ancient Mars, while another looked at outcrops of claylike minerals that hinted at the past presence of water.

During the next school year, NASA and ASU plan to widen their net. Yet another educational program, the Mars Student Imaging Project, is broadening its scope this year to offer distance-learning opportunities as well as sessions at ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility.

Teams of students, ranging from fifth-graders to college sophomores, will be able to work with scientists, mission planners and educators on projects involving the Thermal Emission Imaging System on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To get started, just fill out an application.

This year's biggest teachable moment for Mars is coming up on May 25, when the Phoenix Mars Lander is due to touch down in the Red Planet's north polar region. If you want to get in on the landing party during Memorial Day weekend, make your plans now for Planetfest 2008 in California ... or the Phoenix landing celebration at the University of Arizona ... or the Phoenix Mars landing event at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. Or you can click onto NASA Television via your computer and put on your own party.

Do you have other space-related educational opportunities to pass along? Something for Yuri's Night, perhaps? Share them with the class by leaving a comment below.