by Mark A. Sequeira
As part of a group called Aspiration Creation, students from the Dunwoody/Sandy Springs area participated in a project with the European Space Agency (European equivalent to NASA) to take real live images of Mars. Students were required to submit a proposal to the ESA, identifying the feature they wished to image, as well as detailing how they planned to use the images. Proposals were accepted from Europe, The United States, Argentina, and Australia. Theirs was among 25 proposals selected internationally. Their work culminated in a PowerPoint presentation which was published on the European Space Agency’s website under the subheading “Aspiration Creation”. Click on the “Project PPT in Website” link under the subheading to view the entire presentation.
Students created this gif by viewing several images sequentially
So how did all of this come about? The European Space Agency has a satellite called Mars Express in orbit around the red planet. The satellite is equipped with a bevy of scientific instruments used to study the Martian surface and atmosphere. Among these instruments is a camera called the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC). In May the European Space Agency announced that Mars Express would be entering solar conjunction, a period where Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun. This phenomenon makes it impossible for Mars Express to communicate with Earth, so engineers typically preprogram maintenance and diagnostic routines for the satellite to execute until communication can be reestablished. Additionally, ESA announced that they wanted to utilize this time to make the VMC available for educational purposes. So, they released a Request For Proposals. Groups whose proposals were selected would be allowed to point the satellite at the Martian feature of their choice and image it. In their proposals, students had to identify the feature they wanted to image, support their reasoning, and state how they would use the images for educational purposes. The trick was that there was only a 3 day window for the satellite to take images, so not all features would be visible to the satellite or adequately illuminated by the Sun. To address this issue, the students had to download, learn, and use a solar system simulation software (Celestia) to figure out which features would be good candidates for imaging during the 3 day window. After viewing several possibilities, the group agreed to image the Martian South Pole. Groups from 19 different countries submitted proposals.
Upon having their proposal selected, the group used Google Hangouts to meet with flight control engineers at the ESA to ask questions and discuss the specifics of the imaging process. Mars Express took images for three days and sent the students 750 raw images of the Martian South Pole. Due to low light levels in space, the raw images actually appear black & white. Special image processing techniques must be applied to reveal the true colors. Students watched image processing tutorials offered by the Planetary Society to learn what they needed to know. They downloaded free image processing software (GIMP) and used it to import and process the images. Students learned to view logarithmic histograms of the images to determine the brightness/contrast adjustments, as well as how to apply various digital filters to increase sharpness and improve color levels. Once the images were satisfactory, students researched the south poles of Earth and Mars and created a comparison contrast in the form of a Venn Diagram. The students have been recognized by the Fulton County Superintendent and the Dekalb County Board of Education.
Aspiration Creation began organically as a group of parents who wanted to ensure that their children were maintaining excellence academically. Corporate learning centers like Kumond and Huntington Learning Center are often prohibitively expensive, and private tutors are often more so. Educational investment is highly indicative of future success, so corporate learning centers and private tutors are essentially a means by which parents can buy their children’s success. With so much riding on education, parents believed it should not depend on financial resources. So, they decided to use the resources already at their disposal to offer tutorials for free. The priority is to ensure that students are mastering the material being taught in school, but they are also immersed in mathematics, science, reading, and history via introduction to advanced concepts, critical thinking, comprehension, and art. There is no charge for participation. The only requirement is an open mind and a desire to learn.