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Geeky Parent Guide: Engaging Kids about Science with the Wind on Other Planets

This past month has been great for parents to point their kids toward NASA missions with a topic they can relate to at home: wind. Various NASA missions released findings in December 2019 that involved some innovative thinking and interesting discoveries. Let’s explore the winds of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter which provides a great way to talk to your kids about science, since they understand the notion of wind every time they walk outside.

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The very gaseous atmosphere of Venus traps heat on the planet, making it the hottest in our solar system (approximately 900 degrees Fahrenheit). Along with intense heat on the surface, Venus makes it difficult for equipment, let alone a person, to survive. “On the ground, it would look like a very hazy, overcast day on Earth. And the atmosphere is so heavy it would feel like you were 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) deep underwater.”

Originally, NASA’s Magellan mission surveyed the surface of Venus during the course of a five-year period, ending in October 1994. Now, a team of scientists and engineers are working together to explore the possibility of returning to Venus. Sue Smrekar, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “believes exploring Venus will reveal important details about how rocky planets form and whether other planets are capable of supporting life.”

During this discussion of returning to Venus, it’s clear they must find a way to deal with the volatile conditions at the surface to get additional data. If they send landers, they must find a way to withstand the extreme heat long enough to send back data. While the heat is extreme, temperatures are moderate approximately 30 miles up from the surface, comparable to Earth. That brings about one major concern: “The top level of clouds zips around the planet every four Earth days, driven by hurricane-force winds traveling at about 224 miles (360 kilometers) per hour,” with speeds decreasing as you get closer to the surface. Such a task could be relegated to hot air balloons with sensors attached to detect seismic activity.

To be clear, there isn’t a specific mission to Venus using balloons, but the idea is to take advantage of temperatures similar to Earth, which means being higher up in the atmosphere – and that’s where balloons come in to ride these winds around the globe as it gathers data. If scientists can better understand the composition of Venus, it may help to “narrow down the conditions scientists would need in order to find an Earth-like planet elsewhere.”

Venus Fun Fact: One day on Venus is longer than one year on Earth. It takes 225 Earth days to circle around the sun, while a day on Venus lasts 243 Earth days. Part of this uniqueness comes from the fact that Venus rotates slowly in the opposite direction of Earth.

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One mission to Mars is currently in orbit, and it’s assessing the winds in the red planet’s atmosphere. MAVEN, Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN, began its orbit in 2014 and has now been taking data for over five years. MAVEN is equipped with eight sensors, including those to analyze wind. Something that parents can highlight to their children is the ability of those within NASA (or other space-related organizations) to adapt to extreme circumstances. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) was initially designed to determine the atmosphere’s structure; however, with a little reprogramming, “the MAVEN team began using NGIMS to observe horizontal winds.”

The findings from this over two-year period has resulted in something quite unique. First, “researchers have created the first map of wind circulation in the upper atmosphere of a planet besides Earth.” Also, the wind that’s been observed from the upper atmosphere matches the terrain from the Martian surface. So, surface wind echoes upward resulting in a matching sequence in Mars’ thermosphere. There is also an excellent video that explains how “MAVEN can sense the presence of mountains and valleys on the surface of Mars while skimming the edge of space.”

Mars Fun Fact: Unlike Venus, Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, and its year lasts 687 Earth days.

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Juno launched on August 5, 2011, and arrived to Jupiter’s orbit nearly five years later in 2016. Among its early findings, Juno identified fifteen cyclones – “nine in the north and six in the south.” In the southern pole, those six seemed stable and five of them circled the sixth storm. Since that time, it didn’t appear that other storms had joined within this rotating group, until recently. Now, another cyclone has been discovered.

How did this discovery happen? The mission team was looking to sustain the life of Juno. The spacecraft was facing a possible end to its deep space run, with its path heading for Jupiter’s shadow, which would’ve last for twelve hours. The solar-powered machine would’ve probably faced a similar fate to Opportunity’s end on Mars. Steve Levin, Juno project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, describes how Juno’s fate would be similar to the Mars rover, “when the skies of Mars filled with dust and blocked the sun’s rays from reaching its solar panels.” In space, if Juno isn’t in sunlight, it isn’t receiving power from its lone source.

Again, a collection of NASA’s minds were able to come together to find a solution. The team initiated a rocket burn in advance of the shadow, allowing Juno to maneuver beyond the scope of the eclipse. It’s important to note, under initial plans, that Juno wasn’t meant to have an extended burn like this. Once it started, “It ended 10 ½ hours later. The propulsive maneuver — was five times longer than any previous use of that system.” Juno’s mission life has been extended, and, in doing so, it generated a new discovery – a new cyclone that generates wind speeds averaging 225 mph.

Jupiter Fun Fact: A day on Jupiter only lasts ten hours, but a full year takes 11.8 Earth years. Plus, Jupiter has “79 confirmed moons.”

NASA serves as such a positive example for the advancement of understanding Earth and space. Their ingenuity and dedication to knowledge and educating others is an outstanding reason for parents to share these adventures with their kids. It allows the imagination to grow, and perhaps, your child’s interest will generate a desire to “explore strange, new worlds.”

Do you or your kids love following NASA’s missions? Share your favorite missions in the comments below! Also, if you like this article and want to see more space-related coverage, please like and share this page on social media.

Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.


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