Designing for Mars

There is a lot of scope for Mars design projects.

FPEX - Design an experiment to fit into a plastic film canister.

The experiment should be designed for a spacecraft going to Mars. It should fit inside a plastic film canister, with or without the lid on. The students should design a physics, chemistry, astronomy or biology experiment that will investigate space or Mars itself.

The results the experiment produces should be visual so they can be viewed by the camera on the spacecraft, lander or rover.

The teacher will have to simulate the conditions that will be found.

Tele-robot Simulation

Most Mars exploration for the foreseeable future will be done with robots fitted with cameras, sensors and manipulator arms.

These are surprisingly difficult to control, particularly as the command signal takes at least 4 minutes 20 seconds to reach Mars and a TV signal takes as long to return. That is when Mars is close! When it on the other side of the Solar System the round trip is over 20 minutes.

You can get some of the feel of telerobtic operation by using the school video camera and a remote control vehicle - a radio controlled toy car, for instance - or a toy robot arm, like this one (left).

The car or arm needs to be out of view of operators. A task needs to be set - pick up something, go to a particular place, or whatever.

Design a Rover

GOALS: To provide students with awareness of the experimental procedures required to obtain meaningful data from the surface of a planet.

KEY CONCEPTS: What things do we want to look for on Mars? How can we obtain the data we require? What are the difficulties associated with returning the data? How do we design a rover to do what we want? How do we get the most return for our input?

OVERVIEW: Exploring Mars by rover is exciting but expensive. We must be certain that we have designed a meaningful set of experiments, and that they will give us a good return in terms of data. We have experience of our own planet, and we have to use that to draw inferences for our exploration of other worlds. We must be careful to avoid finding only what we expect to find, and ignoring other discoveries. We have to learn how to design experiments cooperatively, to achieve the maximum return for the high cost of the mission, costs which we must attempt to keep as low as possible. In this module, students will look at how to obtain environmental data on Earth, then study the prevailing conditions on Mars and modify their experiments to suit those conditions.

MATERIALS: Atlases, photos of Earth from space, wildlife books, videos etc. Materials for building probes; experimental recording sheets. Their local environment.


1. Explain the purpose of the mission: to design a rover to tell us as much as possible about surface conditions on Mars. Explain why we want to look for life on Mars, and why we think Mars might have had life once.

2. Role Play. Ask the students to imagine that they are aliens from another planet. they might draw this alien, and create the planet it lives on. Suggest that they have discovered Earth, and they want to find out as much as possible about it before actually landing. They have to study the Earth from space, finding out as much as they can. They then have to design a probe which will contain as many useful experiments as possible. A "nanoprobe" in the form of a student may be sent out to reconnoitre the area first, and relay basic information to the probe designers.

Suggestions for experiments:

Basic Experiments

  • choosing a suitable power supply
  • taking temperature and recording it
  • taking soil samples and filtering them and analysing results
  • catching flying forms of life (such as insects) using nets or sticky devices, or light retrieving surface samples using mechanical arms or sticky devices

Advanced Experiments

  • feeding soil samples with nutrients,
  • recording sounds, catching rainwater - testing for pH,
  • taking photographs automatically,
  • using computer sensors to detect movement

3. Each group of students reports back on their findings. What have they learned from their experiments? Did they find out anything they did not expect to find? Have any questions not been answered? Have any experiments yielded conflicting results? Did all the experiments work? Which experiments would be suitable for building into a rover? What advantage would a rover give over a fixed point probe?

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