Share it! Science : Solar Power in Space: Real Life Engineering Challenges

Solar Power in Space: Real Life Engineering Challenges

Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA
It was thrilling for all to follow the progress of the Philae lander as it approached its comet destination through the European Space Agency's Rosetta Mission. Although this was a historical feat and Philae was able to record and send back some information, due to a "bounce" during landing the lander ended up in an unexpected position in the dark shadows of a cliff. The lack of light prevented Philae from drawing enough solar power to continue running, and for now the lander is in hibernation. Scientists are hopeful that as the comet approaches the sun in the next few months that it may be able to power up again. This is just one example of the myriad of engineering challenges facing space programs. It is rocket science after all...

     After hearing about this issue with the Philae lander, I was reminded of something I learned while visiting Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum this summer in Washington, D.C. NASA's Mars rover, Opportunity, which has been chugging along for 10 years now could easily have been put to a halt due to dust covering its solar panels.
Dusty solar panels on Opportunity. (photo: NASA)
With dust storms on the red planet, it was predicted that this could be an issue with the rover mission. Opportunity has far surpassed all expectations, however, it would be great if the rover could continue traversing Mars as long as possible. From Earth there is only so much that can be done to remedy engineering issues when they arise on a rover like this. Luckily for Opportunity, strong winds last March cleared a lot of dust off of the solar panels. We saw evidence of this from two different "selfies"sent by the rover before and after the cleaning.
     Space exploration is always an engaging topic. Why not use the real-life challenges facing the Philae lander and Mars rovers as a way to inspire students to tackle engineering challenges? There are so many unforeseen issues that arise in a space mission, we can use these instances to spark interest and foster great problem solving skills in our kids. After all, they might be faced with a major challenge someday with only their own ingenuity and a roll of duct tape to help them out!
     There are many ways to introduce engineering, innovation and creative thought at school and home. It could be a building challenge using a kit, or it can be as simple as providing a few supplies, such as marshmallows and spaghetti to build a tower. Each year at my school we engage students in mixed age groups to complete a science challenge on our annual "Science Day". These challenges have included: soda bottle rockets, egg drop, paper airplanes, spaghetti and marshmallows towers, drinking straw bridges, etc. We also give students assignments to build solar cars, solar ovens and popsicle stick bridges during our science classes. The students come up with many different solutions to these open ended challenges. Their creativity always surpasses our expectations. How have you inspired your children or students to be a creative engineer? Comment below!

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