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St. Joe's Students Participate in NASA's Mars Project

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – Some local high school students have set out on a mission. They are helping to explore Mars from Buffalo. Thirteen seniors from St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute are providing support to NASA in the Mars exploration mission.

It's amazing to listen to enthusiastic, young men determined to be part of space exploration. They are only 17, and for one week, the students are working for the nation's space agency.

While most students headed out of school Tuesday afternoon, three of the 13 team members stayed behind to talk to us about their participation in this incredible project that involves the "red planet." St. Joe's is one of 54 schools in the US and South America to participate. But this week, NASA assigned the local boys the lead position in the Mars Rover Spirit Mission. St. Joe's is one of only three schools assigned to this role. The student data team is responsible for reporting any potential problems directly to the space agency. Senior Steve Elardo says students are monitoring temperatures of the rover's landing site. They send and received computerized information from NASA's aata base.

"We take the data in from the satellites orbiting Mars and we interpret it," Elardo said. "We monitor temperatures and basically make sure everything is going right for this entire week. We look at the temperatures to see if they either exceed or go below the rover's instrument restrictions. If they do, we alert the science team at the Arizona State University facility and they have their science team check it out."

Elardo and senior Drew Brownson first applied for the program. Brownson says it feels "surreal" to be a part of this Mars project. But so far, they believe their work has been very accurate.

"We are actually given a problem and we are not given a method on how to solve it," Brownson explained. "We have to come up with our own methods and that's totally different from what we learn in science. In science, we are given the method and we just have to apply it. But here, we have to come up with the method and then apply it."

Brownson says one of the requirements to participate was a strong background in Physics. He and Elardo handpicked 11 others to join the team -- all with strong science and math skills. Senior Andrew Sharman says he "jumped" at the chance to gain hands on experience with the space agency.

The students' work began when the Mars rover "Spirit" first landed January 3rd on Mars. But this week has been the most demanding, as the team takes the lead in providing temperature data.

"I just starting downloading digital images of the Gusev Crater, which is the actual spot we are working on right now. We are going to blow it and look at each individual pixel. Then we will get the temperature reading from that so we can go directly to a pixel on the computer screen," Sharman said.

The team is required to monitor around the clock -- so shifts have been created. St. Joe's director of Communications Sharon Myers says the students determination with the Mars project is phenomenal.

"It speaks about the entire student body at St. Joe's. It is what we call the spirit of St. Joe's," Myers said. "These students are not only taught the concepts of Math or Physics in the classrooms, but they are taught to go out on their own and come up with new ideas. That's something that you can't put a measure on. It is something they will take through out all their lives whether they go into science or go into some other field."

The students say they will continue their Mars monitoring the rest of this week, then will reconnect with the project for another full week this Spring. They are certain some answers to a very mysterious planet could soon be revealed.

"Is there life on Mars?" Brownson was asked. "Hopefully," he said. "If they can find water there, then definitely. There are traces of water there as you can see from some of the pictures that they have shown. Some of the craters appeared to be dried out lake beds or river beds."

"I hope so," Sharman added. "And I think the rover will definitely help answer the question."

"If there isn't life on Mars now, there will be someday, because I fully intend to go there myself," Elardo said. "So maybe the answer to that question is not yet."

While these bright, young men commit their time to space exploration and work for NASA -- at least for a week -- the closest most of us will ever get to the space agency is watching the NASA TV cable channel. All three students say they hope to pursue future careers in science. Steve Elardo says hopes to work at the space agency someday.