For almost 20 years JPL's annual Open House has attracted visitors from all over Southern California and beyond. Each area of exploration, from Earth science to outside our own galaxy, is represented not only with pictures and models but also by experts who can answer any and all questions. For example, at the "Ask A Martian" booth at the Mars exhibit at the open house last weekend questions ranged from: "Is their life on Mars?" to "How does JPL prepare the equipment to explore so far away?"
"They [engineers] use these volcanic rocks from Hawaii to design the drills they use on Mars," said JPL's Guy Webster. The Hawaiian rocks, he said, are similar in density to those found on the Martian surface.
Mars was a very popular exhibit with the highlight, for kids and adults with cameras at the ready, being a roll over by a rover. Kids and some adults would lie on the simulated Martian surface as a rover traversed the area, rolling over them as it does rocks on the red planet.
There were videos throughout the campus of future and ongoing missions. Three-dimensional films and photos had visitors donning their 3-D glasses, a gift as they entered JPL. In fact there were many give-away at the open house, which included visions of space missions on posters, post cards, even tattoos.
The SIM Planet Quest exhibit took on new life as the word from JPL was that the mission would be able to detect the planet Vulcan. A collective "I knew it" could be heard from Trekkers or Trekkies ("Star Trek" fans) from around the world. SIM Planet Quest is scheduled for launch in the next decade, according to JPL, it will be the most powerful planet-hunting space telescope ever devised. The instrument will be so accurate that it will be able to measure the thickness of a nickel at a distance from Earth to the moon.
With this powerful tool, JPL scientists are certain they will be able to detect Earth-like planets including the one near the star 40-Eridani, a triple-star system 16 light-years away. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of "Star Trek," endorsed 40-Eridani as Vulcan's sun in a letter published in a 1991 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine. In the open house exhibit, examples of how SIM will listen in space and see so far away, the physics and science of this mission was explained with hands-on experiments.
Coming back down to Earth, exhibits related to life science were under a large tent. Once again the 3-D glasses came out as images of volcanoes lined one wall. Satellite information was available and visitors learned how scientists are studying the long-term and current effects of the Earth's changing climate. Climatologist and oceanographer Bill Patzert answered questions on climate changes and melting glaciers.
Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops were in the crowd; JPL has many programs supporting the scouts and educational programs. San Marino Girl Scout Troop 445 came because they had heard about the JPL robotics program. Leader Bonnie Yam, said that her girls had learned about the robotics competition held annually at JPL and wanted to join.
"The Girl Scouts [council] are helping with funding," Yam said.
The troop took in the entire JPL experience including the Mars rover rollover.
The open house was a great way for adults and children to understand space exploration and what the future holds. Many visitors said they would be back next year.