Top teams in NASA-sponsored challenge make their own Mars landing

By Chris Wallish
Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline

As NASA and space enthusiasts around the world prepare for the Perseverance rover’s landing on Mars this week, seven student teams from across the U.S. have achieved their own impressive mission success — in ROADS on Mars, the 2019–2020 NASA National Student Challenge.

The Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline (NESSP), the program behind the ROADS student challenges, is excited to announce the following four teams that achieved top prizes:

Top Teams

  • Ares Bobcats — A Curiosity Division (high school) team from the Cienega Astronomy STEM Club in Vail, Arizona
  • The New von Brauns — A Curiosity Division (high school) team from Lewiston High School in Lewiston, Idaho
  • Lunar Ladies — A Curiosity Division (high school) team from Gardiner Middle School in Oregon City, Oregon
  • Sunray Bobcats Ares X-plorer — An Opportunity Division (middle school) team from Sunray Middle School in Sunray, Texas

NESSP also recognized three teams for overall mission excellence:

Mission Excellence

  • Kerbal Krew — A Curiosity Division (high school) team from Spearfish Robotics Club in Spearfish, South Dakota
  • DAB’EM — An Opportunity Division (middle school) team from Roosevelt Elementary in Port Angeles, Washington
  • Lil Einsteins — A Curiosity Division (high school) team from Western Aerospace Scholars in Spokane Valley, Washington

Top Teams teams received trophies commemorating their achievements, and all awarded teams received official NASA certificates, with additional prizes and recognition coming this spring. Other teams were recognized for excellence at various mini-challenges ranging from searching for signs of life in their communities to designing a mission patch for their team.  A complete list of winners can be found at:

“We are so inspired by the students who persevered to complete the ROADS on Mars Challenge during this difficult year,” said Mary Denmon, NESSP acting director. “It took a lot of hard work and team effort to complete their mission for ROADS on Mars.  I hope we see these students continue on with the skills they’ve learned and continue to contribute to NASA endeavors.”

The ROADS on Mars challenge, which kicked off in autumn 2019, followed in the mission steps of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. Like Perseverance, the ROADS challenge incorporated biological and geological concepts, such as identifying biosignatures (signs of life invisible to the human eye) and investigating both how craters are formed and the effects of erosion on a landscape.

The challenge was to culminate with in-person final events around the country in April, but things took a turn for the virtual as shelter-in-place orders to curb the spread of COVID-19 began affecting communities and schools. In summer 2020, NESSP implemented a strategy for teams to complete the last activities of the challenge remotely and began accepting video submissions.  Ultimately, 27 teams were able to complete the challenge and submit final materials.

Reflecting on the difficulty of missions to Mars, Kristen Erickson, NASA Science Engagement and Partnership Director, said: “We can’t predict today how the landing will go tomorrow, but we have prepared as much as we know how — just like students did in their Mars challenges.  If we are successful tomorrow, our ROADS teams will have an appreciation for the hard work that goes into such an endeavor because they did it too!”


More information is at

Members of the media can contact communications officer Chris Wallish at 206-221-7743 or

UW-based group launches national challenge to recreate first moon landing — with drones and Lego robots

A Lego Mindstorms robot, with a plastic astronaut strapped to the front, approaches the lunar lander. Student teams will program the robot to explore the moon's surface.

A Lego Mindstorms robot, with a plastic astronaut strapped to the front, approaches the lunar lander. Student teams will program the robot to explore the moon’s surface. Dennis Wise/University of Washington

By Hannah Hickey
UW News

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission landed the first two people on the surface of the moon. NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first steps and famously proclaimed: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This July will mark the 50th anniversary of that landmark event. The University of Washington’s Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline is calling on the next generation of astronauts and aeronautical engineers to recreate the historic event using modern technology.

A flying drone carries a lunar lander above a map of the moon's surface. The landing spot is the actual site of the Apollo 11 landing. Other craters that teams will explore are circled in red.

A flying drone carries a lunar lander above a map of the moon’s surface. The landing spot is the actual site of the Apollo 11 landing. Other craters that teams will explore are circled in red. Dennis Wise/University of Washington

At a kickoff event Jan. 30 in Kent, Washington, the organizers will officially open the Apollo 50 Next Giant Leap Student Challenge, known for short as the ANGLeS Challenge, in collaboration with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“This is a truly interdisciplinary challenge, involving computer programming, robotics, remote sensing and design,” said Robert Winglee, director of the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline and a UW professor of Earth and space sciences. “We’re calling it the ‘next giant leap.’”

Teams of students from fifth to 12th grades are invited to participate. Each team will build a replica of the lunar lander and use a remote-controlled drone to land it on an 8-by-10-foot map of the moon’s surface. Students will modify and program a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot to then explore the lunar surface and bring back a rock sample.

High school students will also use the drone to retrieve the team’s lunar module and bring it back to the starting line.

As in a real-life expedition, teams will also create a mission patch, design uniforms, do event outreach and leave a “culturally significant artifact” on the lunar surface.

Organizers emphasize that it’s a challenge, not a contest. Teams will be judged on multiple criteria and can earn various prizes. No experience is required; registration opens Feb. 1.

These University of Washington students demonstrate the challenge involving a lunar lander (left, orange) a Lego Mindstorms robot (center) and rock samples (right).

These University of Washington students demonstrate the challenge involving a lunar lander (left, orange) a Lego Mindstorms robot (center) and rock samples (right). Dennis Wise/University of Washington

The challenge has no entry fee. A $500 kit contains subsidized equipment including the drone and Lego Mindstorms parts, and loaner equipment will be available to schools that qualify. Accommodation at the UW campus will be covered for teams at schools with more than 50 percent subsidized lunches. The organizers will also help all teams with fundraising, and can provide drone and robotics training on request.

“An important aspect of the project is to provide access to NASA science and technology for many of the underserved and underrepresented communities across the U.S.,” Winglee said.

Teams must include one adult to act as the coach, and a five-member “flight crew” all under the age of 18 who will be on the challenge field to pilot the drone, operate the robot, identify rock samples and guide the pilot. Other members of the mixed-grade teams will help with building equipment, designing logos and other off-the-field tasks.

The Northwest challenge will be held in July in Seattle and is open to teams from schools or recognized informal education programs in Washington. Twelve other NASA regional hubs will also host events the week of July 15-20. The winning team from each location will win a trip in early August to visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The initial sponsors of the national challenge are drone maker Force1, NASA, the Museum of Flight, Pacific Science Center and the City of Kent. Organizers are seeking more event sponsors, and volunteers to help advise teams and host the challenges.

The UW-based Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline consortium was created in 2016 with a $10 million cooperative agreement that established a “NASA hub” in the Pacific Northwest. The group conducts teacher trainings, especially in underrepresented communities; its past events include a NASA Pow Wow in Ellensburg and a NASA Fiesta in Seattle.

“Smaller-scale, related STEM efforts in recent years have shown that student participants have increasing interest and skill in doing STEM activities,” Winglee said. “The Apollo effort seeks to expand this effort on a national scale.”


More information is at The challenge email is

Members of the media can contact communications officer Chris Wallish at 206-221-7743 or

Originally posted at UW News.

Native American youth launch high-altitude balloons for unique perspective on solar eclipse

By Michelle Ma
UW News

Video by Mary Marshall

While many people across the country donned viewing glasses and prepared to watch Monday’s solar eclipse, a group of 100 teenagers from tribes across the Pacific Northwest launched balloons thousands of feet into the air, gaining a novel perspective of the eclipse — and the chance to send meaningful artifacts to the edge of space during a memorable moment in history.

The high school students released their balloons from Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs land in north central Oregon, directly in the path of totality that allows viewers to see the moon completely cover the sun. Close to 400 people, mainly tribal members and students, gathered to watch. The event, organized by University of Washington-based Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium and the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline, was the largest effort involving Native American tribes during the eclipse.

Students prepare to launch the balloons. (Mark Stone/University of Washington)

In addition to launching the giant weather balloons, students from each school attached culturally significant items, called payloads, to the balloons and sent them high into the sky. Their artifacts nearly reached space before returning to the ground.

“This is the first time many of the students get to participate in a cutting-edge experiment of this type,” said the consortium’s director, Robert Winglee, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences. “Seeing their own payloads at the rim of space is quite exciting. This different perspective will hopefully awaken other ideas for gaining different perspectives on their own lives and their own career paths.”

The total eclipse, as seen from Warm Springs, OR. (Dennis Wise/University of Washington)

Over the past couple of years, consortium staff visited many of the schools participating in the eclipse balloon launch, introducing students to space research and various NASA projects. The goal is to bring STEM-related topics to the students in culturally relevant ways, said outreach specialist Isabel Carrera Zamanillo.

The eclipse project is a tangible way to further involve these students.

“Participation in this eclipse is just a next step for students,” said Carrera Zamanillo, who is also a graduate fellow with the UW’s Center for Environmental Politics. “This is a continuing effort from two years of visiting tribes, and it is a nice event where we can congregate together.”

Each of the 12 student teams created a small payload to attach to the high-altitude balloons. These items are important artifacts to students and included carved wooden instruments, feathers, whistles and a small paddle. Some students also designed electronic sensors that were placed in the balloons and delivered data on temperature, altitude and distance traveled as they soared high into the sky.

The balloons can reach altitudes of 110,000 feet and were fitted with cameras and GPS trackers. The four balloons were released in pairs before the start of the total eclipse, with the hope that the cameras would capture a unique perspective.

Students created payloads, or significant artifacts, to travel up with the balloons. (Mark Stone/University of Washington)

As expected, the balloons popped after two and a half hours of flight, and parachutes helped the artifacts and electronic equipment fall safely to the ground. The items landed about 20 miles from the launch site and teams planned to recover them with the help of GPS. About 35 UW-affiliated volunteers, including undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty, joined consortium staff in Oregon to help with the event.

NASA released several similar weather balloons in conjunction with the solar eclipse — including a launch off the Oregon coast — that intended to provide different views along the path of the eclipse.

The consortium’s leaders hope this experience will encourage students to build payloads that could hitch a ride on current space-flight missions. Blue Origin, for example, has carrying capacity for such artifacts, Winglee said.

“We can encourage the students and say, ‘Look, you’ve done high-altitude balloons, why don’t you go all the way?’ I think this is a steppingstone for students,” he said.

Originally posted at UW News.