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Sonoma County students get taste of NASA Mars mission

  • NASA mechanical engineer, Arwen Dave, right, and planetary scientist Dr. Chris McKay help Pathways Charter School students Morganna Beliz, 10, far right, Julian Stump, 8, and Ben May, 10, left, remotely control a drill in Antarctica during a Skype session with scientists at McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center. Photo taken in Rohnert Park , California on Friday, January 18, 2013. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Twins Cory and Morganna Beliz celebrated their 10th birthdays Friday in a most unusual way.

The pair was among a handful of Pathways Charter School students and family members invited to take the remote controls of a NASA prototype drill being tested in at McMurdo Station in Antarctica in anticipation of a 2020 Mars exploration.

"I was the first one to operate it and I set the &‘seek' command to get to the bottom of the hole," Cory Beliz said. "I think it's cool to be able to run it from Earth and have it operate on Mars."

Not Mars quite yet.

A team of seven scientists are on a six-week assignment at McMurdo testing a drill they hope will eventually be chosen as a tool sent for NASA exploration projects on Mars.

"You need to test it in the type of environment you are going to run it in," team leader Margarita Marinova said, speaking through Skype, to the students gathered near the Rohnert Park offices of the independent study charter school. "It has to work 100 percent because there's no one there to fix it."

The environment in the Antarctic is as close to that of Mars as any place on Earth, the scientists told the students.

"Because there isn't much liquid water, everything looks different," Marinova said. "Mars is also very dry."

On Friday, poor visibility near McMurdo had grounded planned treks by helicopter "into the field," outside of camp. Wind whipped the protective tarp covering the 5?-foot drill while a light snow fell.

"It's 25-degrees Fahrenheit and this is as warm as it gets," Marinova said.

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