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SI Length and Volume Units

Measurements that represent space and length.

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A $125,000,000 loss

NASA's lost of the Mars Climate Orbiter

Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Corby Waste
Source: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/pictures/solar/mcoartist.html
License: CC BY-NC 3.0


The SI length unit is meters and the SI volume unit is cubic meter.

Remember that the SI or “metric” system is the international system of units. If you live somewhere that doesn’t use the metric system, like the United States, you might be thinking, “Why would need to know this if I’m not going to use it?”

In 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter because of a simple math mistake. What was the mistake? A navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the SI system of millimeters and meters while the Lockheed Martin Astronautics team provided important acceleration data in the English system of inches, feet, and pounds. The error was simply the fact that different people used different unit systems while working on the same project.

Creative Applications

  1. Why is it important for scientists to know the SI unit system?
  2. Why is “cubic meters” the SI unit for volume? 
  3. The Mars Climate Orbiter was meant to stop about 160 km away from the surface of Mars, but it ended up 36 miles away from the surface. How far off was it from its target distance (in km)? See how simple this overlooked conversion is!




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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Corby Waste; Source: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/pictures/solar/mcoartist.html; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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