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Robotic Rovers to the Rescue
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Derrick Lampkin walks along a snow-covered path in a forest

Derrick Lampkin trudges through snow on Niwot Ridge, a high-elevation research site about 20 miles west of Boulder, Colo. Image Credit: Derrick Lampkin

Getting dressed for a cold winter day isn't easy. First comes the long-sleeve shirt. Then comes the sweater. On top of that goes the heavy jacket. Don't forget the gloves, earmuffs and hat.

Now, imagine getting dressed for a cold day near the North or South Pole. Temperatures in these places are often well below minus 18 degrees Celsius (zero degrees Fahrenheit). Wind chills can go below minus 46 C (minus 50 F). Yikes! That's cold no matter how many layers you're wearing.

Why would anyone go outside in that kind of weather? One reason is to study ice. Polar ice is melting because Earth's temperature is rising. Scientists want to know how fast the ice is melting, and where it is melting the most.

As the ice turns to water, sea levels all over the world may rise. Scientists want to know what this might do to people on Earth.

Wouldn't it be great if there were a way to stay warm while studying polar ice? Derrick Lampkin is doing what he can to help. Derrick teaches geography at Penn State University. He is making robots to help scientists study polar ice. And they won't have to go to the poles!

Derrick's robots are small machines about the size of a suitcase. They are packed with instruments inside them. Scientists will use the Internet to control them from anywhere in the world. The robots will scoot to spots on the ice that scientists want to study. There, the robots will measure things like air temperature and wind.

A flat rover with silver-colored tracks similar to those of an army tank

Wirelessly controlled instruments that measure the atmosphere will be carried across icy terrain by a moving platform that uses tracks similar to an army tank. Image Credit: Derrick Lampkin

What does air have to do with ice? Derrick explains that the air above the ice can change it. For example, ice takes in the heat from the air. This causes the ice to melt. On the other hand, snow that falls from the air helps make more ice.

The robots won't be just for scientists.

"Teachers and students could also use the rovers for projects to study the ice ... and how it is changing," Derrick said.

Derrick and his students will test the rovers soon. The rovers should then be ready to set out on their icy missions.

Related Resources
What Is Antarctica?
International Polar Year Education   →
Previous Earth Explorers Articles

Prachi Patel-Predd, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Adapted for grades K-4 by Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies