Solve Puzzles Like a Space Explorer on Pi Day

Press Release From: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Posted: Friday, March 8, 2019

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is celebrating Pi Day with a set of illustrated planetary puzzlers that will test your skill as a rocket scientist. The NASA Pi Day Challenge, now in its sixth year, has four problems that scientists and engineers at NASA solve by using pi — an irrational number with infinite decimals often rounded to 3.14 and the inspiration of Pi Day, which is held on March 14.


Used for millennia to derive the characteristics of a circle, sphere or ellipse, pi comes in handy at NASA whether you're calculating the surface area of a planet or an orbit's circumference. Imagine sitting in JPL's Mission Control in Pasadena, California, trying to communicate with the Opportunity rover on Mars. The solar-powered rover has been blanketed by a dust storm, and you need to figure out how much of the planet the storm covers.


That particular problem is the basis of this year's Deadly Dust challenge, which asks participants to use pi to calculate the size of the dust storm that ended Opportunity's mission. In the Storm Spotter challenge, participants figure out how much Jupiter's iconic Great Red Spot is shrinking. Then they turn their sights back to Earth for the Cloud Computing challenge to discover how much water is in a cloud, before determining how much power a laser beam needs to explode ice in the Icy Intel challenge.


Although everyone is invited to try their hand at them, the puzzlers are designed for students grades six through 12. "We design the challenge for students because we want them to see how pi, which they're learning about in math, is used at NASA. But it's a challenge we have found so many people really get onboard with because adults and kids alike get excited about pi," said Lyle Tavernier, who helped develop the problems for the challenge with JPL's Education Office.


Pi's history extends back to the mathematician Archimedes in ancient Greece. For thousands of years, mathematicians all over the world have searched for the exact value of pi. Modern computers have calculated the figure into the trillions of digits, and people compete to see how many digits they can recite from memory (the record is 70,000). Pi pops up in pop culture, from TV shows ("The Simpsons") to movies ("Life of Pi") to songs (Kate Bush’s "Pi"). And appropriately enough, Pi Day falls on the same day as Albert Einstein's birthday. 


Find out if you have the chops to meet the Pi Day challenges here:


If you run into trouble, don't worry: We'll post the step-by-step solutions on March 15.

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