The answer was: “A NASA Mars lander has this mythic name because it was made of parts from a scrapped 2001 mission,” and the correct question was “What is Phoenix?“. The Mars mission currently en-route to Mars hasn’t only set the science world alight, it appears to be growing into the public mindset. Appearing as the subject for one of the questions on the highly popular US gameshow Jeopardy! before it has even arrived at Mars, I wonder how popular it will become when the mission actually begins…
It seems that even gameshows consider the next Mars mission to be significant enough for their contestants to answer.
Getting space science missions into the public domain is never an easy task – there needs to be a certainÂ balance between how much science and information is released to make the mission accessible to non-specialists. Personal experience of this includes giving my first public outreach lecture on physics and astronomy in the Arctic where I chatted all about the “cool” physics we were doing up there (including plasma physics, particle dynamics and some magnetohydrodynamic interactions in the magnetosphere thrown in for good measure… eh?). I later found out that I hadn’t connected with my audience at all (surprise), just because I found it exciting didn’t mean everyone else would. In future presentations I focused on what you could see up there (I mean, a huge picture of the aurora was a good starting point) and the fact we had to travel to the frozen observatories with rifles (not to hijack the telescope, but to protect us from polar bears) engaged my audience far more effectively. The science could then be related much better, giving it a meaning and an importance.
So this brings me to NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission. Not only does the mission have one of the best research/mission websitesÂ out thereÂ (hosted not by NASA but by the University of Arizona, Phoenix), I’ve noticed with each news release there is a genuine and informed effort to get people excited about this superb mission. And people not familiar with planetary missions are taking note.
One indicator is that the long-running US TV show Jeopardy! featured a question on the Phoenix mission due to arrive at Mars on May 25th. The clue was “A NASA Mars lander has this mythic name because it was made of parts from a scrapped 2001 mission,” and the answer was “What is Phoenix?” (note: forÂ those outside the US orÂ those not familiar with the show, the “answer” is stated and the “question” to that “answer” must be guessed by the contestants).
It’s not clear from the Phoenix news release whether it was answered correctly or not, but what is significant is that it was chosen as a question on a non-specialized TV show (a prime-time show at that) in the first place. Obviously the Phoenix mission public outreach guys are doing a great job, beginning to make the Phoenix Mars Mission a household name…
Roll on May 25th!
Credit: Phoenix Mars Mission