Contest winner with illustrations of the three topics: Charon, Miranda and Triton.

The winners of the most recent edition of NASA Scientist for a Day essay contest wrote about visiting three mysterious moons: Charon, Uranus' Miranda, Neptune's Triton, and Pluto's Charon. Credit: NASA.

A NASA essay contest encourages students to learn about some of the deepest, darkest, most distant parts of the solar system.

The writing assignment is bold and enticing.

“Examine NASA images of Miranda, Triton, and Charon – then choose the destination you think would be the best place to return with another spacecraft.”

Welcome to Scientist for a Day, an essay contest designed to give students a taste of life as a planetary scientist. Students in grades 5 to 12 are tasked to study three possible destinations, and then to write an argument in favor of revisiting one of them.

The mysterious places mentioned in the essay prompt are intriguing small moons in the outer solar system. Although they are too far from Earth to get many visitors – or much popular press – they were each visited once by a NASA mission.

Each was only a brief visit, though, just the time to snap a few images as the spacecraft zoomed by on its way to somewhere else. As a result, we have images of only one side of these moons, and we know almost nothing about their other sides.

“We want students to develop analytical skills that will serve them well in life, whatever career they pursue.”
- Ota Lutz, STEM Education Lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

After studying the images taken by the New Horizon spacecraft in 2015, Anjali Shaju, an 8th-grader in Atlanta chose Pluto’s moon Charon.

“Belts of fractures and canyons, large craters, grooves, and faint ridges that cover Charon indicates that the moon might have had an internal ocean that had frozen long ago,” Anjali reasoned. “These intriguing features of Charon have led to my conclusion that Charon is a place of tremendous potential and that it is essential that we further explore this natural satellite.”

Learning how to write arguments in support of scientific goals is exactly the point of the contest.

“We want students to push their curiosity, do research, and be able to defend their choices in written form,” said Ota Lutz, who leads the STEM Elementary and Secondary Education Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “We want them to develop analytical skills that will serve them well in life, whatever career they pursue.”

Students competed in different age groups, with a winner from each age group for each topic.

"Miranda almost seems like a bizarre clutter of random rocks poorly merged into one large object."
- Shrida Mittal, Ram Patel, and Tuba Ahmed, 11th-graders - New Jersey

Gigi Stewart and Bryan Wong, two 8th-graders from St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote their best-in-class essay in favor of returning to Uranus’ moon Miranda.

“With a variety of textures, grooves, craters, and fractures coating its surface, you cannot help but ask, ‘How were those created? Would it be the same on the other side of Miranda? Or would it be different?’” they wrote.

Miranda, often dubbed the “Frankenstein moon,” was also chosen by 11th-graders Shrida Mittal, Ram Patel, and Tuba Ahmed from West Windsor, New Jersey.

“It almost seems like a bizarre clutter of random rocks poorly merged into one large object,” they wrote. “[Miranda] is covered in varying landscapes, from canyons that are 12 times deeper than our very own Grand Canyon, to undulate patches resembling the pattern of waves we see in our oceans, to large patches of disturbed terrain.”

In addition to picking a destination, many would-be scientists weren’t shy about suggesting how they’d propose to return to these moons.

Without a budget to worry about, there were plenty of options.

PIA12186 - 800w
This view of the volcanic plains of Neptune's moon Triton was produced using topographic maps derived from images acquired by NASA's Voyager spacecraft during its August 1989 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL/Universities Space Research Association/Lunar & Planetary Institute. More ›
Ojas Kumar, a 5th-grader from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, proposed to send a sophisticated spacecraft to Triton with a rover aboard.

“My spacecraft can study the surface and terrain of Triton to find clues that may lead us to the exact past and origins of Triton,” Ojas wrote. “The spacecraft could also send a rover or micro-vehicle to the terrain and drill into the surface to find minerals and study the volcanic and geologically active moon.”

Sixth-grader Patricia Lopez-Alvarez, from Columbia, South Carolina, even figured out the kind of propulsion needed to travel that far.

“Charon is very far away from the Sun, so we would need to rely on radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) instead of solar power,” Patricia wrote.

“Fortunately, Pluto and Charon are very close to each another, so we can send a spacecraft with two rovers and probes and land them at the same time on both planetoids.”

With such exciting prospects for discovery, perhaps new spacecraft, rovers, and landers will someday set out on similar outer solar system journeys – maybe with a few of these imaginative explorers at the helm.

Winning essays are available online at:

For more information, visit:

Archived story: NASA Essay Contest Goes Far Out in 2020 (JPL EDU NEWS)

Miranda - moon of Uranus TOPIC 1: MIRANDA In 1986, when Voyager 2 flew by Uranus, scientists learned Miranda's surface has cracks and valleys. It's often called the “Frankenstein moon” because it looks like it is pieced together out of many different types of ice and rock. Credit: NASA.
More on Voyager 2 ›

Triton moon of Neptune TOPIC 2: TRITON Scientists saw terrain that looks like the surface of a cantaloupe, and found out that Triton has geysers erupting nitrogen gas. These eruptions are part of the reason why this moon has a thin nitrogen atmosphere. Credit: NASA.
More on Voyager 2 ›

Charon - moon of Pluto TOPIC 3: CHARON While most moons are much smaller than the planet they orbit, Charon is so large compared to Pluto that it pulls on it and makes it wobble. Credit: NASA.
More on New Horizons at NASA
More on New Horizons at JHUAPL ›

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