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Updated: March 14, 2023

NASA Celebrates Pi Day, Highlights Pi's Significance in Scientific Endeavours

Here is how NASA employs Pi in its daily operations, from landing parachutes on Mars to determining if distant exoplanets are habitable.

If you use the American calendar, today is March 14th. It's Pi Day, one of the few days of the year when mathematicians and scientists who work with numbers are honored. But did you know that NASA, the American space agency, employs Pi in its daily operations?

Pi, or, is the mathematical constant that denotes the ratio of a circle's circumference (the length of its border if it were a straight line) to its diameter (the length of the longest line that can pass through its centre and end at its border).

Pi's approximate value is 3.14. This is why March 14 is observed as the anniversary of one of mathematics' most well-known symbols. NASA has provided a list of the many ways it employs the symbol in its work to highlight its significance to science. Here are a few examples.

Unknown worlds are being mapped

Maps were created by ancient Earth explorers such as Columbus and others when they traveled to different countries and geographical masses. Similarly, when spacecraft visit other planets, they create maps that document the planet's processes, such as how water travels across the globe.

Spacecraft create these maps while they orbit other worlds. They do, however, feature cameras with rectangular fields of view that capture images in "bands" on the planet's surface. Scientists use a method that includes Pi to calculate how many photos it will take to map the entire world.

Discovering new worlds

Pi is useful not only for reaching a planet and mapping it; scientists also utilize it to look for faraway planets. Powerful telescopes in space and on Earth measure how much light faraway stars radiate. When an exoplanet (a planet beyond our solar system) passes by a star, the telescope will detect a dip in the amount of light emitted by the star.

Scientists will calculate the size of the planet that passed in front of the star using this percentage value and the formula for the area of a circle.

Finding worlds that could support life

One of the most intriguing questions after discovering new exoplanets is whether those planets can host life as we know it. They are said to as "potentially habitable" if they can. Scientists use Pi to determine if exoplanets are habitable, which should come as no surprise.

A habitable planet must be in a "Goldilocks zone," where it is neither too distant from nor too near to the star it orbits. It requires the proper amount of heat for life to occur, yet too much heat can kill it. Pi is used by scientists to determine the inner and outer margins of the goldilocks zone around a specific star.

Following that, they use Pi and Kepler's third law to determine how long it takes an exoplanet to complete one full orbit of a star, revealing the planet's location and if it is in the Goldilocks zone.

Mars parachute jump

What if scientists wish to land on another planet after learning how to use Pi to learn more about it? Pi is yet again beneficial here. Pi is used by NASA scientists to land rovers and landers on Mars.

According to NASA, no two Mars landings are alike, yet they all have one thing in common: parachutes. When you drop something on the Martian surface, it is critical that the object be slowed down by the thin Martian atmosphere.

Engineers must consider everything from the mass and velocity of the spacecraft to the elevation of the landing spot and the density of the atmosphere when constructing parachutes that can do this. Pi assists them in determining the size of the parachute required to provide adequate drag to halt the descent of an object.

Asteroid and comet tracking

Pi may be used to investigate not only planets, but also asteroids and comets! Scientists at NASA's Center for Near-Earth Objects are entrusted with measuring the rotation rates of asteroids and comets, among other things.

Scientists can estimate how long it takes an object to complete one complete rotation on its axis based on observations made from Earth. Scientists can estimate the angular velocity of an object, whether it is an asteroid or a comet, using this figure and the pi formula.



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