Drilling Ice on Enceladus

Danny Stock
“The night will be so long without your wonderful stories." – Dunyazad, The Arabian Nights

Middle School science teachers Stephen Harris and Ethan Burns understand the power of a compelling story. This fall, they invited students to consider themselves engineers with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tasked with creating a reconnaissance probe capable of drilling through the surface of the Dunyazad crater* on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 62 confirmed moons. Beneath the icy crust, they posited, “the subterranean saline world may house the potential for life, possibly even bacteria, frozen in the upper layers of ice.” Through December, 6th grade students** built and programmed probes from scratch to perform a series of essential tasks to explore Enceladus.

Student-built reconnaissance probes had to 1) survive a rough landing on the crater, 2) withstand extreme temperatures from saltwater geysers, 3) drill through icy crater crust, 4) measure saline temperatures, and 5) communicate a message of peace in the event that they encountered intelligent beings.

In the reality of the classroom, models had to 1) survive Stephen dropping them on the floor from chest height, 2) withstand getting splashed, 3) drill one centimeter through a block of ice, 4) include a temperature probe that students programmed to switch a tri-color LED to blue (colder) or red (warmer) with a 50℃ threshold, and 5) play a pre-recorded message programmed by students.

Students took Stephen and Ethan’s story and ran with it. They used Hummingbird controllers, Snap! block-based programming, drill bits, cardboard, wood, hot glue, tape, and whatever else they could scavenge from home. The 6th graders built reconnaissance probes with character and regularly spoke to rethinking their design process with repairs all along the way.

Adding more hot glue to hold everything together was a highlight for Sloane ’26, who along with partner Lina ’26, expressed pride in their finished programming and probe. Lina said, “The code didn’t work at first but looking it all over at the end, and seeing that it worked, I felt really proud, knowing: we did that!”

“Tape ruined the first motor because the drill bit was attached to the motor itself instead of the gear,” explained Teresa ’26. “That blocked it from spinning. But for our final test the tape saved us.” Leo ’26 added, “We taped the drill bit onto the spinning gear from the motor’s axle so it would spin freely.” For the final test, students placed their probes onto a block of ice and ran their code. “At first there was not enough pressure on the drill bit, but we adjusted the probe on the ice,” said Elsie ’26. “We were able to drill one centimeter through the ice.”

“When we started this project, we learned about different planets and dwarf planets in our solar system,” Stephen said. “We talked a bit about differences but also a lot about similarities to Earth. We spent some time talking about what a first encounter would be like. ‘Would they be able to hear?’ ‘Would they be able to see?’ ‘Could we interact with them?’ We listened to my copy of the Voyager probes' golden records, which was one of humankind's first (planned) recorded messages sent into space.”

Students proudly showed off the progress they made on their code, put their probes through their paces, and played their messages of peace.

“As the students worked, they were very thoughtful about what messages they would want to relay to a being in a first-contact situation. The positive, heartfelt, thoughtful messages that kids relayed gave me hope and faith for their generation.”

“Kindly refrain from tearing us to pieces, we come in peace,” said the computer-generated voice of one probe. Another group of students programmed their probe to repeat “We come in peace” over and over again in a dozen languages.

*Named for Dunyazad/Dinarzade, the sister of Scheherazade, in The Arabian Nights: The Book of One Thousand and One Nights
**Students had already given presentations in October on large asteroids, dwarf planets, Oort Cloud objects, and trans-Neptunian objects.

Staff writer Danny Stock tells the stories of teaching, learning, competing, creating, and performing at Georgetown Day School. He is a former GDS second grade teacher and current parent.
  • Lower School
  • STEM
  • Technology