Way Cool Tools for Mars Exploration

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The primary goal of this module is for students to understand and appreciate that it is necessary to use special tools and equipment to do work and solve problems in space. In order to gain this understanding, they first need to understand Earth-Mars similarities, realize how different the Martian environment is from that of earth, and encounter some of the special problems, like great distance, in exploring another planet like Mars. They should begin by considering what they would need to carry out an exploration of their school playground and then relate that to exploring Mars. They should investigate how Sojourner will help explore Mars and design their own rover or robot to send to Mars. The module will require searching for information on the Internet, then analyzing the information that is gained in order to apply what is learned to an original design.

People have been intrigued by Mars for millennia--watching the Red Planet with curiosity. It was named by the Romans for their god of war. Although it seems to be more like earth than are the other planets in the solar system, its hostile environment presents great challenges for exploration.

Mars is a barren planet with no obvious signs of life. Its terrain is cratered and has huge volcanic mountains and great valleys. Its atmosphere consists mostly carbon dioxide. The atmospheric pressure is almost 1% of Earth's and the surface temperature rarely reaches above freezing. There is no liquid water on the surface of Mars, although frozen water does exist in the polar ice caps, and scientists speculate that there may be water beneath the surface of the planet.

Travel to Mars presents special challenges. Launch from Earth to Mars must occur at the proper time and in the proper direction. The optimum "launch window" occurs approximately every 26 months and the spacecraft must be aimed at where Mars will be about seven to eleven months after launch. The distance between the two planets is so great, that it can take as much as 40 minutes to deliver a message from Earth to Mars and receive the answer back at Earth. People who travel to Mars must be able to handle emergencies on their own and they must bring life support systems to survive in an environment hostile to what humans are used to on earth. Fact must be firmly separated from fiction for kids to understand the limitations, difficulties, and perils of space travel--we can't just "beam" them across space or travel at "warp speed" in stylish comfort!

A first step to human exploration of Mars is to use technological advancement in the form of orbiters and robots to learn more about the planet. Much has already been learned from centuries of terrestrial observations, the Mariner and Viking missions, and the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1996, NASA will be involved with two Mars projects. One will orbit the planet, while the other, Pathfinder, will land and deploy a rover named Sojourner Truth. Pathfinder has science, spacecraft engineering, and rover technology objectives. One of the principle objectives is to demonstrate a low-cost system that can place a science payload on the surface of Mars. Pathfinder will test solar-array performance on the Martian surface and the survivability of spacecraft components in the severely cold temperatures. As the spacecraft is descending through the Martian atmosphere, it will look at the atmospheric structure. Once it lands, it will begin weather observations of pressure, temperature, and winds. Its camera will make images of the Sun and sky to infer dust particle shapes and sizes, estimate atmospheric water vapor, and image the surrounding terrain for the Rover and geological experiments. Magnets will be used on Martian dust, soil, and surface rocks to determine their composition and gather information on the probable water history of the planet. The rover will demonstrate the usefulness of roving vehicles for executing experiments on and carry instruments to determine the composition of surface rocks.

The scientists and engineers who developed Sojourner had special challenges to overcome. The project needed to be low-cost yet deliver useful information. This meant that Sojourner had to be small enough to fit into Pathfinder and big enough to carry its own "brain." It had to operate in sand and dust as well as climb over rocks. It needs a gyrocompass rather than a regular compass, because Mars does not seem to have a magnetic field. It needed to be able to withstand the extreme temperatures on the surface of Mars. It was also designed to deal with the long communication time delay between Earth and the lander by being semi-autonomous.

Assessment is an integral part of student projects. As students present their designed rovers, they will demonstrate what they have learned about Mars and the technology necessary for the exploration of Mars. Their rovers should be movable, have some sort of power source, have a communication system, possibly a "brain," and some sort of instrumentation (such as a way to measure temperature, or a way to analyze rocks and soil). Playing Rover Relay will demonstrate that they can problem solve and determine effective ways of communicating. Drawing pictures of the playground and Mars, will show what they know about the different environments. Navigating a remote-control vehicle using prior video information integrates all the issues related to the rover and its mission.

Introducing the Module

    Sample questions for leading the discussion:

    1. What is a question you might want to use to investigate your school playground? (Such as, what are 10 plants growing in my playground what evidence of insect or mammal life can I find in the playground, what types of rock and/or soil makes up the playground?)

    2. What could you do in order to answer these questions?

    3. What if you were at school, or anywhere away from home, and you needed to answer the question from a remote location?

    4. What are some ways to get information if you cannot be there physically?

    5. If you could operate a robot in the playground from a remote location, what would it need in order to find the answers for you? List answers to question #5 on the board or on a piece of butcher paper to be referred to later.


Data Collection:




Social Studies:

Links to World Wide Web resources:

NASA's Space Calendar lists past and current events on a daily basis.

A brief list of attempted Missions to Mars.

Center for Mars Exploration

NASA "Classroom of the Future"

MarsPathfinder Mission

The Surface of Mars

The Case for Mars

Mars on a Shoestring






Topic : Way-Cool Mars Exploration

Concept: People use tools and special equipment to do work and solve problems in space.

Note: Our module will be a study of how technology contributes to scientific discovery and investigation. We will be establishing the need to use special tools to investigate Mars because of its distance from earth and its different environment. We will attempt to begin with what the students know about their environment and build on that understanding, relating it to how to learn about different environments, particularly that of Mars.

References to the Standards (National Science Education Standards, Washington: National Research Council, 1996.):

1. As a result of the activities, all students should develop the abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and develop an understanding about scientific inquiry. They will ask questions about objects and events in the environment, plan and conduct simple investigations, gather data, use data to construct reasonable explanations, and communicate investigations and explanations. (p. 122)


2. As a result of the activities, all students should develop abilities of technological design and develop an understanding about science and technology. They will identify problems, propose solutions, implement proposed solutions, evaluate designs, and communicate their ideas. They will understand that people have invented tools and techniques to solve problems. (p. 135-138)


References to the Benchmarks (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, American Association for the Advancement of Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.):

1. By the end of fifth grade, students should know that scientific investigations may include observing and doing experiments. (p. 11)


2. By the end of fifth grade, students should know that people everywhere have invented and used tools throughout history. (p. 45)


3. By the end of fifth grade, students should know that technology enables scientists to observe things that are too small or too far away to be seen without them. (p. 45)


4. Technology is essential to science for access to outer space and other remote locations. (p. 46)


Essential Academic Learning Requirements (Commission on Student Learning, State of Washington, 1996--working document in progress):

1. The student conducts scientific investigations.

2. The student understands how science knowledge and skills are connected to other subject areas and real-life situations. The student will understand the connections between science and technology.

3. The student applies science knowledge and skills to solve problems or meet challenges. The student will identify problems that can be resolved using science/technology, design and test ways to address the problems, evaluate solutions, and communicate approaches.


Student Activity #1: Comparing Earth and Mars

Key Concept: Tool designers need to know about the environment in which their tools will be used.

Students will compare pictures of Mars and Earth from space, a volcano on each, and a desert on each. They will discuss and draw to report what they learned.



Student Activity #2: Rover Relay

Key Concept: Great distance presents a time delay communication problem.

Students will play a relay game to experience time delay in communicating between Mars and Earth. After experiencing the relay game, they may play with commands by e-mail. It will be difficult for students to wait for commands to be followed during the e-mail experience, so we suggest that the students be working on another class project while they are waiting.



Student Activity #3: The Design Team

Key Concept: Vehicle designers have to meet certain standards.

Students will design a vehicle of Legos, Construx, K'Nex, cardboard, lids, etc. The vehicle must meet standards of size, weight, and other specifications which can be determined by your students' ability and level. Note: You should allow at least three separate class sessions for this activity.


Outcomes: Students will design, draw, and build a small vehicle to meet specifications that you determine.

Student Activity #4: Compare NASA's design with yours

Key Concept: Comparing and contrasting Sojourner and student designs.

Students will compare/contrast their vehicle designs of Activity #3 with the real Sojourner using Internet sites.





Examine the six pictures with a partner. After you have discussed the questions with your partner, write answers to the questions.

1. Which of the pictures show earth scenes? Which are pictures of Mars?

2. From your examination of the pictures, discuss with your partner the ways that Earth and Mars are alike and the ways that they are different.

3. What types of things are missing from the pictures of Mars?

Think about your favorite place on the school playground. Picture it in your mind. Now draw a picture of it on the space in the next page.

Then draw a second picture in the second space provided. This picture should be of the same place, but you must subtract from the picture everything that would not be there if it was on Mars.

Favorite Place on the school playground:

What it would look like on Mars:

4. How are your two pictures different?


List ways that NASA's design is like yours. Then list ways that it is different from yours.

Ways they are the Same Ways they are Different

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[Live from Earth & Mars]__________________________________________________