NASA Pathfinder Innovation Challenge Focuses on STEM

The following blog was originally posted The Microsoft Federal Blog on Nov. 19, 2009.

In 1997 when the Mars Pathfinder began to transmit images back to Earth after its seven-month journey through space, I remember being awestruck by the TV coverage. The barren vistas, talcum-powder like Martian soil and rocks were, literally, other-worldly. NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has served as a steadfast example of America’s greatness in innovation and discovery. And as a way to keep that innovation coming, we are excited to embrace the “Pathfinder Innovation Challenge” announced jointly with Federal CIO Vivek Kundra at this week’s PDC09.

The “Be a Martian” website and Pathfinder Innovation Challenge, which are being co-sponsored by Microsoft and NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, “seek to encourage the development of critical digital-age computer skills, as well as life-long-learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

With possibly thousands of participants using the information being made available on this website, NASA aims to produce a complete, accurate map of Mars as well as enhanced close-up images, and easier interpretation of Martian surface changes over time. The Pathfinder Innovation Challenge is a specific programming and design contest created to help solve some of NASA’s most challenging problems. For example, developers can devise ways to sift and sort information about craters on the Martian surface, which, in turn, will be used to determine the relative age of certain regions of the planet.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has loaded all of the Mars rover images from the Spirit and Opportunity Rover missions and made them available via our cloud-based Windows Azure platform. What I find most fascinating about all of this is that by contributing to the Challenge, not only will participants have the chance to win game points and prizes, but their designs may actually be used by the Mars mission team. Let the Pathfinder Innovation Challenge begin! Citizen scientists from high-school age on can directly contribute to that proud history of exploration.


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