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NASA wants you to build your own Mars Rover

NASA wants you to build your own Mars Rover


A hardware startup partnered with America's top scientists to create building blocks for young astronauts

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The work astronauts do in outer space has always captured people’s imaginations, but it can be tough to translate the complex science and expensive equipment NASA uses every day into lessons anyone can enjoy. "I tried to build some of my own stuff to teach kids about the electromagnetic spectrum," says Ginger Butcher, who leads education and outreach for NASA’s Aura Mission, which has been studying Earth’s atmosphere since 2004. "But I had to solder it myself, which meant it was pretty expensive. And would break a lot."

Last year Butcher saw a TED talk from Ayah Bdeir, the founder and CEO of LittleBits, a hardware startup based in New York City. The company sells kits of circuit blocks that snap together with magnets — no soldering, wiring, or programming required — and can be combined to fashion millions of different gadgets, from synthesizers to remote control cars. Butcher reached out to Bdeir and asked if they could partner on a collection of NASA-inspired blocks.

The result, released today, is called the Space Kit. It comes with 12 "bit modules" that provide things like power, remote triggering, light sensing, and motorization. In collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, LittleBits also came up with 10 activities that allow users to build everything from a satellite dish to a miniature Mars Rover. The kit costs $189 and goes on sale today at LittleBits' website.

Crafting a Mars Rover requires a few arts and crafts items not included in the Space Kit — scissors, tape, and paper tube — but the pre-fab blocks are a snap compared to what NASA was using for its earlier lessons, when Butcher was jury rigging equipment herself. "It takes this complex science and makes it fun and accessible," says Butcher.

"To make playing with electronics more like playing with Legos."

The Aura project for example, which is Butcher’s focus, captures images of all kinds of atmospheric conditions: everything from the holes in our ozone layer to the chemical weather patterns that are key to understanding air quality on the ground. Giving kids a sense of how this research worked and why it's important had been a challenge. "Finally with these activities we have a great way to show how we make these measurements, and it’s something hands on," says Butcher.

LittleBits sees itself as part of the larger Maker movement, a tech-focused DIY culture that encourages people to build and experiment with their own gadgets. "Our mission is really to allow anyone to create their own hardware, to make playing with electronics more like playing with Legos," says LittleBits’ Bdeir. Born in Beirut and educated as an engineer, Bdeir eventually found her way to the famed MIT Media Lab. There she fused her mathematical pedigree with a love of arts and culture, working on the first prototypes of blocks that could be combined by amateurs to create interesting circuits.

She founded LittleBits in 2011 and has since raised about $15 million in venture capital. The Space Kit is the company’s third release, following sets focused on music and lighting, and the first one done in collaboration with a major scientific force like NASA. All told the company has now released more than 50 blocks, but Baidr likes to point out that since they are all interoperable, that means there are "literally tens of millions of possible circuits you could create. From a small number of blocks, you get a whole universe of possibilities."