Wednesday, August 3, 2011

ISAS 2011 Academy 2 Day 4

The students woke up early once again in order to fill their day with as much time in NASA Ames Research Center as possible. By 8:00 in the morning, the students had cleaned out all of their rooms, eaten a quick bagged breakfast provided by Navy Lodge, and began walking towards the main entrance. There were many sleepy eyes as the students passed through the guarded gates of Ames, but by the time they reached their first lecture, enough blood had pumped into their brains to keep them awake and engaged for the rest of the day.

The first lecture was located in the furthest building across Ames, causing many of the students to receive an unexpected workout. The lecture was given by a famous NASA scientist, Dr. Chris McKay, who brought actual rocks from meteorites for the students to look at and touch. His presentation was centered on his work about searching for alien life. However, this alien life has nothing to do with little green men, but instead, as he defines it, “life that is not of Earth’s tree of life…a second genesis of life.”
Lecture by Dr. Chris McKay

 What he explained to the students is that the definition of alien has changed throughout the years. True alien life is now characterized as a life form that is not related to the life found on earth; not carbon-based organisms, or any organism that can be classified on earth’s tree of life. For the most part, Dr. McKay suspects these life forms to be of a similar persuasion to bacteria or single-celled organisms on earth, but of a completely different structure never seen before. The students listened closely as he described the possible planets that may contain the dead and frozen remains of these organisms.

Different planets from presentation

 One of the most interesting arguments he stated is that Mars, because it is 1/10 the size of Earth, may have once held basic life for a short time period. However, because it was so much smaller, the planet did not have enough gravity to hold onto an atmosphere, causing it to leak into space and killing any life that may have existed.

After the lecture, students once again split up into two groups to visit another handful of interesting facilities. One of the laboratories the students visited was called the Psychophysiological Research Laboratory, headed by Dr. Patricia Cowings. The facility prepared astronauts and cosmonauts for the intense effects of liftoff and the disorientation that it causes. She also helped to train the astronauts to exercise while in space so that when they returned to Earth, the effects of living in microgravity would be minimal. She had a powerful presence in the room, which caused all the students to pay special attention to the amazing work she has done in her career.

The last place the students visited before lunch was a facility which housed the Mars Wind Tunnel. The tunnel was nothing like the size of the 80 x 120, but has still been an important component to recent Mars study. The wind tunnel would blast simulated Mars dust to recreate the many dust storms which have plagued and aided previous Mars rover missions. While looking at the Wind Tunnel, the students were given valuable advice about how one should research correctly: don’t just watch what is happening, write what is happening.

By 11:00, the students were growing hungry, but Ames luckily had exactly what they were looking for. At Ames, every Wednesday is Burrito Day at the MegaBites cafeteria, and the burritos were especially large. Neither students  nor mentors, left the building hungry.

Some students posing for a shot

The students were allowed some free time to go to any of the gift shops in the center to continue souvenir hunting. The students went about the task with gusto, and regrouped soon afterwards to listen to a presentation by Ken Bower, a scientist aboard the aerial observatory known as SOFIA. The presentation dealt with the history of telescopes, their usefulness, and how they work. It was extremely informative, and one of the most interesting presentations, especially when the speaker allowed the students to play with an infrared camera to further demonstrate a different spectrum of light.

After this presentation, the students split up into their groups to visit two more NASA facilities. The first was the Fluid Mechanics Lab, which tests different objects and models in smaller scale wind tunnels. The students were able to even feel one of the wind tunnels as the interns at the facility turned it on especially for them. It was good for the students to interact with the interns who were only a year or so older than themselves. It demonstrated to the students that it is possible to get involved if they work hard and pursue as many opportunities as possible.

Students in Fluid Mechanics Lab
The very last facility in Ames that the students were able to witness was called Future Flight Central. The center was a simulator of a control tower where the students were shown an airport in Nevada and were impressed by the realistic surroundings. The life-like snow, rain, and fog simulations were amazing. Even more realistic was a simulated voyage they witnessed from Nevada to the surface of Mars. The simulation was able to put into better perspective what conditions the students would have to prepare for once their “team” got to the surface of the red planet.

Students lounging on Mars
With the tours finished for the day, the students were allowed a little more time to scrounge through the gift shop for any more last minute gifts, and then loaded onto a bus to return to the San Jose Airport. The students relaxed in the terminal, many circling around tiny tables or the floor to play cards, while others curled up on seats for some much deserved sleep. The students will need this time to recuperate, for tomorrow they continue their busy week by touring Micron, as well as working even harder on their mission. However, with all of the knowledge they have gained in the past two days, it is fairly certain they will succeed.

These blogs will continue to be uploaded daily, once the students have completed their final activities each night. A more "live" version of the days' events are being uploaded onto the ISAS Summer Academy Facebook  page, as well as to Twitterat ISAS_Academy. The students are eager to continue exploring Ames Research Center and have another busy day ahead of them.

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