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NES Video Chat With NASA Scientist Dr. Joel S. Levine
January 21, 2011

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NASA Explorer Schools invites you to join a live chat on Jan. 21 from 2 - 3 p.m. EST to ask Dr. Joel S. Levine, Chief Scientist of the ARES Mars Airplane Mission questions about the the development of a robotic, rocket-powered airplane that will fly through the atmosphere of Mars to search for evidence of life by looking for trace gases of biogenic origin.


Levine has a bachelor's degree in physics, Brooklyn College, City University of New York; master's in meteorology, New York University; master's in aeronomy and planetary atmospheres, University of Michigan; and doctorate in atmospheric science, University of Michigan. His hometown is Brooklyn, N.Y., and hobbies include photography and foreign travel.

Related Resources
What's the best way to become a robotics expert? Scientists and engineers at NASA reveal how their career paths led to the world of robotics.
› Levine Career Profile
› Robotics Career Corner

Contrails Over Mars? Langley researchers have set their sights on Mars. They're designing an airplane that can fly in the thin Martian atmosphere.
› View ARES Website

NASA Explorer Schools Registration
If you're a K-12 educator in the U.S. or a U.S. territory and haven't registered yet for the NASA Explorer Schools project, take a few minutes and complete the NES registration form to become part of NASA's exciting K-12 gateway to the future.


Chat Transcript

Joel_Levine(P) Hello and welcome to our Web chat. We'll begin promptly at 2:00.

CraigNASA(Q) How long will it take for ARES to get to Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) It will take ARES between 7 and 9 months to get to Mars.

vwood(Q) Do you know if there is water on Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) Yes we know there is water. It's not liquid, it is frozen and it's below the surface.

CraigNASA(Q) When will ARES take off? Will I be able to watch it live on the NASA channel?
Joel_Levine(A) ARES will take off 5 years after NASA gives us the funding to do it, and yes you will be able to see it live as it flies through the atmosphere.

vwood(Q) hello
Joel_Levine(A) Hi there vwood. What's your question?

vwood(Q) Is mars just made out of rocks and sand?
Joel_Levine(A) Mars is made up of many different elements, including metals, and non-metallic materials, and is very similar to the composition of Earth.

ccs4thgrade(Q) were you at the launch of spirit and opportunity?
Joel_Levine(A) No, I was not at the launch of Spirit or Opportunity.

ccs4thgrade(Q) what instruments will be on the plane?
Joel_Levine(A) We have instruments to measure the composition of the atmosphere, the composition of the surface material, the water below surface, and cameras to take pictures for the mission.

ccs4thgrade(Q) how will you control it?
Joel_Levine(A) It is pre-programmed before the launch, and the computers will guide it where we want it to go.

vwood(Q) What are you planning to do on mars when ARES gets there?
Joel_Levine(A) One of the things we are planning to do is to look for the presence of life by looking for gases produced by living systems.

ccs4thgrade(Q) what is the most exciting part of your job?
Joel_Levine(A) Making discoveries before anyone else finds out them.

CraigNASA(Q) What are you hoping to find with ARES?
Joel_Levine(A) We hope to find gases produced by living systems which is an indication that micro organisms live on Mars.

ccs4thgrade(Q) Is the surface of mars actually red?
Joel_Levine(A) Yes, the red color is from the oxidized iron on the surface of Mars.

CraigNASA(Q) How long have you been working @ NASA?
Joel_Levine(A) I just completed my 40th year working for NASA.

ccs4thgrade(Q) how big is Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) Mars is about half the size of Earth, its diameter is about 4,000 miles.

CraigNASA(Q) What made you want to work @ NASA?
Joel_Levine(A) Growing up in New Your, I had a telescope to look at the planets, and that is what turned me on to planetary science.

vwood(Q) Are there any signs of life on Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) Perhaps the most interesting measurement is the discovery made about two years ago of the gas methane in the atmosphere of Mars. On Earth, all methane is produced by microorganisms (living things). That's why we want to fly Ares, we want to fly close to the surface. Methane was detected on Mars by telescopes on Earth. We want to fly Ares close to the surface of Mars to see if the methane is real.

Jean_Pounder(Q) I am working with a group of students on a Mars Student Imaging Project. We are looking at glacial features on Mars. Will the data you collect be able to determine if there is ice at the surface or subsurface? And the composition CO2 or H2O?
Joel_Levine(A) ARES will carry instruments that will measure subsurface frozen water not Carbon Dioxide.

CraigNASA(Q) Will there be any testing with ARES on earth as far as flying goes?
Joel_Levine(A) Yes, we've already conducted tests in Earth's atmosphere, at an altitude of 100,000 feet.

ccs4thgrade(Q) What gasses will you be looking for?
Joel_Levine(A) We will be looking for gases that are produced by living systems. Those gases are methane, ammonia, and nitrous oxide.

CraigNASA(Q) Is ARES a plane or a rocket?
Joel_Levine(A) ARES is a robotic, rocket-powered airplane. It's an airplane that is powered by a rocket; it needs lift as it flies through the atmosphere.

Jean_Pounder(Q) How does the ARES plane fly in such a low atmospheric pressure?
Joel_Levine(A) By having very skilled NASA engineers design it. In order to stay flying in a thin atmosphere, the wing area has to be very large, and we have designed the Ares so that it has maximum lift. It took a group of NASA airplane engineers to design this airplane.

ccs4thgrade(Q) Did you play with LEGOS® as a child?
Joel_Levine(A) I didn't play with LEGOS® as a child because they didn't have them. I played with a telescope.

ccs4thgrade(Q) how many people have worked on the aircraft?
Joel_Levine(A) I would say on the ARES project, we probably have about 250 people across the United States.

ccs4thgrade(Q) how long will the aircraft be on Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) Once it gets there it will stay there, but it will fly only for several hours and then it will run out of rocket fuel and it will land on surface of Mars.

CraigNASA(Q) Is this your first time hosting a chat?
Joel_Levine(A) The first time to host a chat for NASA Explorer Schools.

mrs_B(Q) How large is the ares airplane?
Joel_Levine(A) The wingspan of the ARES airplane is 21 feet, the body of the airplane is 17 feet, it is pretty big.

ccs4thgrade(Q) how much money will you need for this project?
Joel_Levine(A) The funding that we need to send an airplane to Mars is about $500 million dollars. That makes it one of the least expensive space missions NASA has ever done.

CraigNASA(Q) What makes you think that there is life on mars?
Joel_Levine(A) That is a good question. The reason is, I think in early history Earth and Mars were similar, if life developed on Earth then life could have developed on Mars also.

ccs4thgrade(Q) if life is found will you bring it back to Earth?
Joel_Levine(A) No, if life is found on Mars, we won't bring it back to Earth, but when humans go to Mars in the future, they will study it up close and personal.

Jean_Pounder(Q) How long will the aircraft be able to fly once it reaches Mars? Will you focus your efforts on one area of the planet?
Joel_Levine(A) Once it gets there it will stay there, but it will fly only for several hours and then it will run out of rocket fuel and it will land on surface of Mars. And yes, that area (of focus) is the area where we think the methane is produced.

MMarcy(Q) Will the Mars plane run using solar cells- or what will power it?
Joel_Levine(A) Rocket engine will power it.

ccs4thgrade(Q) what made you want to be a scientist?
Joel_Levine(A) I remembered when I was in the 6th grade living in Brooklyn, New York, I looked at a book in the library of a picture of Mars. That picture had been taken with the largest telescope at that time, Mt. Palomar in CA. I then decided to study the planets, and that was before NASA was formed.

is229_-_bklyn(Q) What is the most expensive project you have ever done?
Joel_Levine(A) The most expensive project I hope to do is the Mars airplane.

ccs4thgrade(Q) How long were you in college before you got a job at NASA?
Joel_Levine(A) Well, it took me 4 years to get a bachelors degree in Physics and 2 years to get my masters degree and another 3 years to get a PhD in planetary science. The year I graduated is the year I started working for NASA.

ccs4thgrade(Q) If something happens to the plane, how will it be repaired?
Joel_Levine(A) It depends on what happens to the airplane, the on-board computer can re-establish a flight pattern if something goes wrong.

ccs4thgrade(Q) how much fuel is needed to get to Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) The airplane doesn't fly to Mars. The airplane goes in a spacecraft, and the spacecraft flies to Mars. The spacecraft is launched on a powerful rocket and is dropped off at Mars. The airplane has enough fuel to fly several hours.

mrs_B(Q) Any idea what you will call the first life you find on Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) No, I have no idea. The biologists will give it a name. I don't know what it will be like.

Peterson_Warren(Q) why is the tail of the plane inverted?
Joel_Levine(A) To give it better stability and better lift.

ccs4thgrade(Q) where will you launch the rocket that will carry the plane?
Joel_Levine(A) From the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Peterson_Warren(Q) What is the atmospheric density of Mars compared to Earth?
Joel_Levine(A) On the surface of Mars, the atmospheric density is less than 1 percent of the density of Earth's atmosphere.

ccs4thgrade(Q) what will the speed of ARES be as it flies around mars?
Joel_Levine(A) About 450 miles per hour.

MMarcy(Q) Once it lands on Mars will it ever fly again?
Joel_Levine(A) The answer is no, but we expect ARES to continue making measurements from the ground.

niko96(Q) Why if earth and mars were so similar, earth developed with life and mars didn't? What changed that now has made them both very different?
Joel_Levine(A) That's the $64,000 dollar question, why they evolved so differently. That's why we send spacecraft to Mars every two years to learn more about the differences in the evolution of Earth and Mars.

CraigNASA(Q) What does NES stand for?
Joel_Levine(A) NES stands for NASA Explorer Schools. A NASA project. Get more information at http://explorerschools.nasa.gov.

CraigNASA(Q) How will it keep taking measurments from the ground. Does it have a solar pannel?
Joel_Levine(A) It has batteries and solar panels.

vwood(Q) How do you steer a space ship?
Joel_Levine(A) You don't steer, you make course corrections, very small course corrections, you launch it with a powerful rocket in the direction of the planet, and the gravitational pull of the planet will eventually guide it to Mars.

MMarcy(Q) How can you control a robot from such a great distance?
Joel_Levine(A) It is pre-programmed by a computer. It does it automatically. It can also be controlled robotically using radio signals.

J_B(Q) Will Mars dust storms cause problems for the aircraft?
Joel_Levine(A) We've tested in wind tunnels the effects of dust and strong winds on the airplane, and the answer is no, it will not impact the flight of ARES.

naglerbj(Q) Why use a plane: dorigibals, bloons work better?
Joel_Levine(A) I don't think dirigibles work better because they are controlled by the direction of wind, they only move in the direction the wind is blowing.

mrs_B(Q) When will Ares launch?
Joel_Levine(A) We do not yet have a date for launch, ARES is proposed mission, it is not a funded mission at the present time.

J_B(Q) How does ARES land on Mars? will you need a path (runway) to land?
Joel_Levine(A) ARES lands very carefully, and we do not need a runway.

CraigNASA(Q) Thank you for answering our questions!
Joel_Levine(A) You're very welcome. Have a great rest of the day.

niko96(Q) How long will ARES be able to transmit data when it lands on the martian surface?
Joel_Levine(A) It will be able to transmit data until the batteries wear out or when the solar cells are covered with atmospheric dust.

niko96(Q) How long will it take for the data from ARES to reach NASA?
Joel_Levine(A) Data is transmitted by radio and it can take any where between 15 – 60 minutes.

Peterson_Warren(Q) If you flew ARES on Earth how long would the flight be compared to the flight on mars?
Joel_Levine(A) Well, we actually fly ARES on Earth in the 100,000 feet mark and the flight times are comparable on Earth and Mars.

CraigNASA(Q) What does ARES stand for?
Joel_Levine(A) ARES is an acronym for Arial Regional-scale Environmental Surveyor. Ares is also the name of the roman god of Mars.

Peterson_Warren(Q) Have you considered turning ARES into a Rover after it lands by placing wheels on it?
Joel_Levine(A) We have considered it, but it becomes too expensive to turn ARES into a Rover.

MMarcy(Q) What type of measurements will it take from the ground?
Joel_Levine(A) We will take high-resolution photos. We will also study the mineralogy of the surface of Mars.

MMarcy(Q) Why not bring the life back to Earth?
Joel_Levine(A) It's very difficult to bring life back to Earth. In all likelihood, if you bring Martian life back to Earth it will probably die on the way back.

ccs4thgrade(Q) Do you wish you could go to Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) Not me! I don't want to be on that trip, but I think humans will go to Mars. The link we gave at the beginning of the chat will tell you how humans will go to Mars.

Judy_B(Q) What does it mean to be the Principal Investigator?
Joel_Levine(A) Good question. At NASA, a Principal Investigator is the chief scientist of a mission.

ccs4thgrade(Q) what is the hardest thing you have had to build?
Joel_Levine(A) I don't build things, the engineers I work with build things, I do tell them what to build, but I don't actually build anything.

Peterson_Warren(Q) Where did you get the design for ARES from?
Joel_Levine(A) From the minds of creative aeronautic engineers at NASA. We designed the airplane from scratch.

MMarcy(Q) Once Ares lands will it be able to move on the surface of Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) Once is lands it's stationary, it will not move.

niko96(Q) Would the rovers on mars have any contact with ARES? Would they also affect each other?
Joel_Levine(A) No the rovers won't have any contact with ARES. They would be on the opposite side of Mars, so they would not have contact with each other.

Jean_Pounder(Q) Thank you for your time and answering all of our questions.
Joel_Levine(A) You're quite welcome. Hope to see you here again for next month's chat.

mrs_B(Q) What type of fule will Ares need to orbit Mars?
Joel_Levine(A) ARES doesn't orbit Mars, it flies through the atmosphere of Mars. The fuel is called hydrazine.

Peterson_Warren(Q) How long did it take you to come up with the ARES design?
Joel_Levine(A) ARES was designed by dozens of engineers and it took several months of testing in wind tunnels.

Joel_Levine(P) Thank you for joining our Web chat. You had great questions for me about Mars.

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Joel Levine and ARES model in NASA Langley wind tunnel
Joel S. Levine, Research Scientist
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Artist's concept of the ARES Mars airplane flying over Mars
Artist's concept of the ARES Mars airplane flying over Mars terrain.
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Artist's concept of the ARES Mars airplane
Artist's concept of the ARES Mars airplane.
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Page Last Updated: August 22nd, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator