Local Kids Feel Connection to New Spacecraft Set to Explore Mars

NASA Mars 2020 Rover

Graphic courtesy of NASA.

Local students will be taking special interest in a Mars mission this summer. A student from Lake Braddock Secondary School named the U.S. rover that will land on the planet’s surface, and students in a Park Authority science program worked on a mock-up of a Mars mission of their own.

Before astronomy programs at The Turner Farm observatory were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of students spent time studying Mars with an instructor from the Analemma Society. Bill Burton helped the children develop a plan for exploring a crater on Mars by using small rover models that the students made themselves. It gave the kids a feel for creating a mission plan and was a great warm-up for the real mission NASA launches in July.


Bill Burton works with students at The Turner Farm on mock-ups of a Mars mission.

Timing is everything with these Mars missions. The Analemma Society’s Shawn Dilles provides the details.

Every two years, NASA and a few other national space agencies launch new probes toward the planet Mars to join the other spacecraft already in operation there to explore the red planet. The timing of the launches is not a coincidence. Earth and Mars both orbit the sun in the same direction, but Earth completes an orbit in just over 365 days (one Earth Year). Mars is farther from the sun, and a bit slower, and completes one orbit every 687 days (one Mars Year).

Because they are travelling at different speeds through their orbits, the distance between Earth and Mars varies throughout the Martian Year. At the closest point, Earth is positioned between Mars and the sun – a time called opposition since Mars is opposite the sun from Earth. Opposition between Earth and Mars occurs every two years and 50 days. Earth and Mars are farthest apart when on opposite sides of the sun from each other, and this is known as a conjunction.

Mars was last in conjunction on September 2, 2019, when it was 248,192.005 miles from Earth. On October 13, 2020, Mars will be in opposition at 38.6 million miles from Earth, about one-sixth the distance at the farthest point.

Observers on Earth are able to track the time when Earth “laps”’ Mars when travelling around the sun. Planets generally move from east to west relative to the background constellations. For a brief time before, during and after opposition, Mars will appear to slow, stop and move backwards. This apparent retrograde motion of Mars is because Earth appears to catch up to and then pass Mars. In 2020, Mars will be in the constellation Pisces, and the retrograde motion will occur from September 9 to November 14.

Rocket scientists use the difference in orbital positions and speeds to advantage. The goal is to minimize the amount of fuel and time needed to get to Mars, in order to allow the most payload possible to be flown. The spacecraft are aimed at a point ahead of where Mars is in its orbit, so that by the time they arrive, Mars will have “caught up” to this position.

The U.S., China, and the United Arab Emirates have each scheduled launches to Mars in July 2020. If successful, these spacecraft will join the Curiosity Rover and six orbiting spacecraft (Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Orbiter Mission, MAVEN and the Trace Gas Orbiter) at the planet.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will be launched around July 17, and it is based on the Mars Science Laboratory design. It will include an improved rover called “Perseverance” that was named by Alexander Mather, a 7th grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, as part of a NASA naming contest. The mission will also carry a small helicopter named “Ingenuity”  — the first aircraft sent by Earth to another world. Vaneeza Rupani, an 11th grade student from Alabama, suggested the name Ingenuity. The helicopter will fly ahead of the rover to provide mission planners with data on the best routes to take. The goal is to explore the area around Jezero Crater, believed to have once been an ancient lakebed.

China’s Tianwen-1 lander and a rover are scheduled to land in Utopia Planitia to seek evidence of past life on Mars and study the planet’s surface and environment. A Chinese orbiter will study the Martian atmosphere, ionosphere, ice and surface topography. The United Arab Emirates orbiter will study the Martian atmosphere and weather, including dust storms on the planet.

Author Shawn Dilles is a volunteer with the Analemma Society who teaches classes at the Park Authority’s Observatory Park at The Turner Farm.


A Weedy Knoll is Transformed into a Native Garden at South Run


An unsightly, weedy knoll that was once filled with dead trees and poison ivy has been undergoing a transformation at South Run District Park. Though park visits have recently been restricted due to COVID-19, volunteers have been keeping their social distance from each other and continuing this environmentally-friendly beautification project.

The work near the entrance to South Run RECenter began in 2014. At that time, the area was covered with dead pine trees, poison ivy and a tangle of non-native invasive plants. The Fairfax County Park Authority and a volunteer team led by Sally Berman launched an effort to clear the knoll and introduce a combination of perennials that folks donated from their own yards. Kurt Lauer, the Volunteer Coordinator for South Run RECenter, supervised the effort for the Park Authority.

This year, a second transformation of the knoll has been taking place under the leadership of Sherry McDonald, a Fairfax Master Naturalist who has joined the volunteer landscaping team at South Run. Under McDonald’s lead, a plan was developed to add


Sherry McDonald planting native plants at South Run.

dozens of native plants to the knoll. “Even with the uncertainty of everything due to COVID-19, volunteers have been working to create the ‘Natives Knoll,’ the whole time following physical guidelines,” said McDonald.  “We developed a plan with the guidance of Matt Bright, who runs a non-profit organization called Earth Sangha which grows native plants for our area.”

South Run RECenter purchased more than 90 native plants for the landscaping effort. The plants from Earth Sangha include Golden Alexanders, wild bergamot, spotted beebalm and black-eyed Susans. McDonald contributed some golden ragwort. Berman added kalameris, ironweed and coneflowers. The garden will eventually include Maryland gold aster, thoroughwort, purple lovegrass, butterfly weed, hairy beard tongue, golden rod and wild geranium, too.


Sally Berman burying cardboard with mulch. The cardboard makes a good weed barrier and will decompose and enrich the soil.

Because the plants needed to get into the ground, the South Run volunteers were granted special permission to work because of the time sensitivity of their project. The volunteers have been diligent in their social distancing and adopted new safety procedures for their work. Sections of garden have been assigned to specific volunteers so that they aren’t working in the same areas. The volunteers are using their own tools and not sharing anything. All planning is being coordinated via phone, text and email.

McDonald, Berman and other members of the landscaping team view gardening as both physical and mental therapy during these uncertain times.  They hope that when the park reopens, people will stop to view their handiwork on this up-and-coming Natives Knoll, but they caution it will take some time for all the plants to fill in. The volunteers estimate it will be a couple years before the plants reach their peak beauty.

April 2020

The transformed knoll in April 2020.

“In the future, this garden will include plant signage, and we hope it will be certified as an Audubon at Home wildlife sanctuary,” said McDonald.  “We hope the garden will attract birds, pollinators and human visitors.  Maybe some people will even be inspired to join our landscaping team!”

Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.

Murder Most Fowl

crowsHumans may travel in teams, cozy up into cliques, form a sorority or be members of an old boys’ club, but what do we call gatherings of other living things? You probably know that a group of cattle or deer form a herd, but did you know that a group of cockroaches is called an intrusion? Not too surprising.

Fox at Feeder-InstaYou don’t have to think very hard to figure out why some groups of animals got their names. Have you ever seen a pounce of cats or heard a cackle of hyenas? Maybe you’ve have the misfortune to cross through a cloud of grasshoppers or gnats. Hopefully you’ve never been surrounded by a leap of leopards or a skulk of fox.

Did you know that a group of chubby-looking hippos is actually called a bloat? You also can call them hippopotamuses or hippopotami. Either is correct. It’s not surprising that several giraffes gathered in one spot might be called a tower, and it seems fitting that a group of flamingoes is known as a flamboyance.

Some group names seem to reflect the personality of the animals. Lions travel in a pride.  Apes, just a step down the evolutionary ladder from us, are called a shrewdness when gathered together. Crows and ravens, which have picked up a bad reputation from movies and literature, don’t have very good group names either. A gathering of crows is called a murder. A bunch of ravens is known as an unkindness.

DSC_0082A group of birds in the air is called a flight while a group on the ground is generically called a flock. Various species have received their own group names over the years. You might see a sedge of bitterns, a chain of bobolinks, a brood of chicks or a gulp of cormorants. Doves gather in a dule and ducks form a brace. Majestic eagles form a convocation while geese gather on the ground in a gaggle. Look for a colony of gulls at the seashore or a cast of hawks in the mountains. You might be tempted to scold a scold of jays when they get together in a party. Rooks form a building, turkeys group together in a rafter and woodpeckers form a descent.

You may have nothing to fear from the congregation at church on Sunday, but if you see a congregation of alligators, you might want to say a prayer. If one shark makes you shake, what would you do around a shiver of sharks? Don’t be tempted to reach out and touch any porcupines. They gather in a prickle.


Frogs, herring and caterpillars travel in an army. Groups of kangaroos are called a troop. Monkeys can gather in a troop, too, but they’re better known by another name. After all, what could be more fun than a barrel of monkeys?

Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority Public Information Office. This article first appeared in the ResOURces newsletter.

Who’s Caring for the Park Authority’s Nature Center Animals While Parks are Closed?

It usually takes a village to care for the animals who live in the exhibits at the county’s nature centers. A combination of staff, volunteers and visitors help feed the critters and provide them with human interaction. These days, with volunteers at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, a slimmed down staff remains on the job to keep the animals healthy until park facilities reopen.

Hidden Oaks

Under normal circumstances at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, Avery Gunther oversees 16 animal care volunteers, half of whom are teens gaining science experience and service hours. She normally uses two or three volunteers a day to feed 23 live animals ranging from the shy millipede to the venomous copperhead snake. The volunteers also help maintain the 17 tanks in the nature center that the reptiles, amphibians, insects, arthropods, crustaceans, and a hamster call home. Since parks were closed, Gunther now has responsibility for all the feeding, cleaning, and chatting up duties.

The nature center purchases many of the animals’ menu items, including crickets, mealworms, reptile food sticks, vegetables and fruit. Staff members raise some earthworms for feeding. Other foods are found outdoors in nature, a search that often used to fall to volunteers.

The nature center’s favorite creature is an Aussie named Spike. This bearded dragon is an engaging lizard who helps to teach compare-and-contrast lessons on subjects such as desert vs. woodland animals and dinosaurs vs. reptiles. Although he looks like a fierce dinosaur, he is a crowd favorite – especially when mealworm treats are on the menu.

With fewer people in the nature center, Gunther believes the animals may be a little more relaxed these days because nobody is forgetting the guidelines and tapping on aquariums and vivariums. It’s a good reminder to visitors to be on their best behavior when the nature center reopens!

With visitors gone, it’s a bit easier to do some of the deep cleaning of tanks. However, cleaning larger tanks, especially the snapping turtle indoor pond, has become a bigger challenge since this is usually a two-person job that takes several hours.

While the nature center’s doors are closed, Gunther has been sending updates to the 23 sponsors who have virtually adopted individual site critters by providing funds to help with feeding and vet bills. With more than 33 years of experience with the Park Authority, Gunther is sharing her knowledge, skills and abilities with young and old, human and reptile, vegetarian and carnivore.

Hidden Pond

Hidden Pond Nature Center cares for 35 animals, including snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, spiders, and fish in its displays. Since the COVID-19 closure, staffer Brian Umanzor has been handling much of the animal care and exhibit upkeep, with a little help from the site manager and a seasonal employee. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the area, most of the feedings and about half of the exhibit upkeep duties were carried out by volunteers.

Most of the foods used for mealtime are purchased from local pet shops or suppliers. For the aquatic species that eat fish, the nature center prefers catching its own fish to reduce the risk of spreading a disease in the tanks from fish bought at pet shops. The main worry is fungal infections spreading from critters, such as goldfish, into the nature center’s aquatic set-ups. There are some risks from wild-caught fish, too, but the nature center has had good success with its current procedures.

Visitors to Hidden Pond are often given the opportunity to interact with the animals during visits, through programs, and at events such as nature-themed birthday parties. Manager Mike McCaffrey doesn’t think the animals are reacting in any negative way to being handled less. He notes that many of the animals on exhibit are former “pets” that have been donated to the center. They have long been acclimated to being around people and should have no problem when visitors return.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) has 13 animals on display to help educate and engage the public. There is a painted turtle, common snapping turtle, copperhead, Eastern rat snake, corn snake, bull frog and yellow bullhead catfish. The park has two five-lined skinks, two red-eared sliders and two grey tree frogs.

In the past, there have been 8 to 12 student volunteers helping care for the animals under the direction of the animal care supervisor, Justin Lott. It’s an opportunity for the students to gain experience and earn service hours. Currently, Lott is working with park staff to handle animal care.

The meals aren’t likely to sound too appealing to you, but the snakes and snapping turtle enjoy eating previously frozen mice of various sizes. The catfish gets bottom-feeder specific food tabs, and the turtles get food sticks. The frogs and skinks get crickets. The turtles and bull frog dine on earthworms, too. Some of the food fed to the animals is purchased from pet stores, while earthworms and other small invertebrates are readily available by searching outside.

While ECLP has been missing its volunteers, the staff is making sure there is always someone available to handle animal care at the visitor center. Lott has been coming in regularly to care for the venomous copperhead snake, which needs specific care performed only by trained staff. Routine feedings and animal care are performed whether or not visitors are present. In the past, any tank changes and filter cleanings were usually done when the visitor center was closed.

The exhibit turtles react to people when they are near because they associate people with meals. With no public visitors these days, the turtles get excited when they see the only person coming in for the day to feed them. Long-term, the lack of human activity may have an impact on the park’s ability to keep its snakes accustomed to being handled regularly with groups. Having a snake that is calm and used to being handled is important to the success of many of the park’s programs for visitors.

Whenever visitors return to the parks, the animals will be ready and waiting for the extra company.

Author Carol Ochs compiled this story with the assistance of Hidden Oaks Visitor Services Manager Suzanne Holland, Hidden Pond Manager Mike McCaffrey and ECLP Naturalist/Scout Coordinator Lara Dolata.


Caring for the New Kids on the Block During the Time of COVID-19


Farmer Olivia Madigan feeding one of the new kids.


With more than 100 animals in its care, Frying Pan Farm Park has long been a magnet for families and local animal lovers, especially in springtime. That’s when the farm sees the majority of its baby animal births, and who can resist a cute kid, calf, lamb or piglet?

Though visitors are restricted in the animal areas this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, farmers remain hard at work behind the scenes caring for all the barnyard critters.

Frying Pan is a working farm that preserves and interprets farm life of the 1920s to 1950s. The farm has dairy and beef cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, chickens, peafowl, ducks, turkeys, and cats. Four farmers are currently handling all the feeding and animal care duties. Two other groups of four are trained and ready should anyone in the primary cohort get sick or need to go into quarantine. In such a suburban region, it is hard to find other Park Authority staff with the skills needed to care for horses, cows and other farm animals.

Fortunately, much like grocery stores, farm feed stores are considered essential businesses and are continuing to provide hay, grain, customized feed blends, minerals and other supplements. Unlike grocery stores, the feed stores have not been struggling with any supply chain issues at this time.

IMG_7933With limited staff to cover feedings three times a day/seven days a week, the team’s ability to take a day off or get a break is limited. However, the farmers are all committed to provision of exceptional animal care. Staff members say the animals don’t seem to be reacting to the absence of visitors, but the younger animals are not getting acclimated to visitors as they usually would.

News about animal births, and photos of the youngsters, can still be found on the Park Authority’s website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. News of these births accompanied by video or photos is always popular!

IMG_7915It can get lonely on 130 acres, and Farmer Paul and staff are looking forward to the day when visitors can return to Frying Pan to see all the newborns and the daily changes happening on the farm.


Create a Dog Agility Course in Your Own Back Yard

Spending more time than usual with your dog these days? Put the time to good use with these tips from one of the Park Authority’s dog obedience and agility instructors.

SR Dog Obedience_190411_0064

Kids are doing their school lessons from home these days. Why not a little homeschooling for your dog?

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of obedience and agility classes for now, but pet owners can use this time to practice some basic obedience behaviors with their dogs so they will be ready when classes begin again. All the Park Authority’s upper-level classes require a dog to be able to sit, lie down, stay and come. Practice those commands in your back yard, front yard or down the street in front of a neighbor’s house.

Dogs are situational learners, so get out and explore and ask your dog to do those behaviors on his leash in new areas.  You might be surprised to find that it will be hard for them when they have lots of different smells and things happening around them.

If you think you might want to explore our agility programs, you can start by teaching some basic skills to get your dog ready.

Use a card table, place a towel or blanket over it, and ask your dog to tunnel through it. This will become the tunnel and chute behavior in class. (“Tunnel” is the command word)

If you own a hoola hoop, place the hoop in either hand. Keeping one edge on the ground, ask your dog to walk through it from one side to the other and then back again. This will help get the dog get ready for the tire jump. (“Tire” is the command)

You can use a couple of bricks and a broom stick to teach your dog to jump. Place the bricks on the ground and lay the broomstick over the top. Keep this low. You don’t need height. You just need to have the dog pick up his back feet to jump. This is the skill we will need in class. (“Jump” or “Over” is the command)

Another exercise will help your dog learn where his feet and back end are located. This can be taught by placing a ladder on the ground. Ask the dog to walk the ladder keeping his feet and legs between the rails and stepping over the rungs. (“Walk It” is the command)

Dog Agility_042516_0090Dogs will also need a skill called two on and two off. To teach this behavior, take a small butter or yogurt lid, put a treat on top and place it at the bottom of the stairs. With your dog on leash, ask him to walk down the stairs and at the bottom keep the two front feet on the landing (where the treat is) and the back two feet and the rest of the body still on the staircase. (“Target” or “Bottom” is the command)

Dogs can be taught all of these skills by positive reinforcement with treats, a marker word or a clicker. Kids can help, too, with a little parental supervision. Be enthusiastic, make it fun, but keep it safe!

I hope this gives you something to work on during our days away and that we will see you in one of our Pet Place programs soon.

The Fairfax County Park Authority has one of the largest dog training programs in Northern Virginia offering everything from puppy, general obedience and agility classes to competition classes. There’s even a camp for kids and their dogs. Go to Parktakes online and search the Pet Place category to see a complete list of canine classes.

Author Debbie Barrows is an instructor with the Park Authority. She can be reached at intrepidgoldens@hotmail.com.

Don’t Fawn Over Fawns

Lake FX Deer_062713_0958

Maybe it’s the spots. Or the cute faces. Or those wobbly legs. There’s just something so sweet about baby deer that it brings out the protective instinct in humans.

Unfortunately, too much fawning over fawns can be harmful to them.

April through July is the peak time for births among the white-tailed deer in Virginia, and you may run across a young deer bedded down along a trail or curled up in your backyard that appears to be abandoned. Fairfax County Wildlife Biologist Katherine Edwards warns: “If you see a fawn that appears abandoned, leave it alone.”

Back Yard Fawn 034In almost all cases, fawns are only temporarily left by their mothers for protection and don’t need any help from you. Edwards explains, “People don’t often see that mother deer return at dawn and dusk to move and/or nurse their young. Keep children and pets away and give the fawn space to allow the doe to return to its baby.”

Don’t be a fawn “kidnapper!”

If you or someone you know has already handled or “rescued” a fawn, return it immediately to the exact place where you found if less than 24 hours have passed. Its mother will be looking for it.

Do seek help if you see a fawn that is showing obvious signs of injury or distress. Call on the experts if you see a fawn that is wandering and crying incessantly, has swollen eyes, has visible wounds or broken bones, or if there is a dead lactating doe nearby. If you see these signs, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, veterinarian or the Animal Protection Police for further assistance and instruction.

If you have questions about whether an animal needs help, contact the professionals. Call the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline toll-free at 1-855-571-9003, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or search online to locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator,  The Fairfax County Animal Protection Police can be reached through the police non-emergency line at 703-691-2131.