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Destination MarsDestination-Mars

  • Subject: Space Science
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  • Grade(s): 6-8
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  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. While Mars is just a stone’s throw across the solar system, a manned mission there is still just a dream.
2. In order for such a mission to become a reality, we would need, among other things, a means of transportation that would allow us to move over the surface of the planet.
3. Both the surface and the surrounding space of the planet Mars have characteristics that challenge existing technologies to create such a means of transportation.


For this lesson, you will need:
Destination Mars video
Images of the surface of the planet Mars
Research materials
Computer with Internet access
Art materials for each group


1. Ask your students to imagine that they have just been hired to design a new vehicle for traveling around on Mars’s rocky surface.
2. Begin by showing them images of the various kinds of terrain their vehicle will have to traverse (mountains, rock fields, deep gorges).
3. Remind them, too, that they need to consider the vehicle’s fuel source, weight, durability, size, special features, and flexibility.
4. Review with students what they have learned about the planet Mars, challenging them to identify any characteristics of the planet’s surface or surrounding space that would present problems for a designer of a Mars surface-exploration vehicle.
5. Allow time for students to do further research on Mars to discover any other facts that might prove useful to them in completing their assignment.
6. Divide the class into groups; then ask each group to sketch its idea for a new Mars rover and write a description of how it works.
7. When the groups have completed their sketches and descriptions, have them choose one student from each group to present what the group has designed.
8. Have each group select another group member to serve as its delegate to a “NASA committee” for selecting which vehicle to build.
9. Ask the committee members to deliberate the merits of each design, and then vote on a winner. (No delegate may vote for its own group’s entry.)

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Adaptations for Older Students:
Have groups accompany their sketches with brief essays explaining why their vehicles should be chosen by the committee.

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Discussion Questions

1. Debate the pros and cons of having a consortium of nations working toward a manned flight to Mars instead of the single-nation model seen so often in the past in the efforts of the United States and Russia to explore space.
2. Meteors, meteoroids, and meteorites are three terms that describe rocks from space under different conditions. Though these terms are not synonymous, they are often used interchangeably. Give proper definitions for each of these terms, then explain which one applies to the alleged Mars rock discovered in Antarctica by NASA scientists.
3. The people chosen to go to Mars will be out of reach of the Earth, completely on their own. While all the people will be astronauts, should they have various fields of specialty, like botany, engineering, or geology, or should each person be a jack-of-all-trades? If we send people with different professional backgrounds, which professions are most desirable?
4. Is it realistic to expect just four people to compose the entire crew? Imagine having to spend more than two years with the same four people, isolated from all other human beings. The psychological effects would surely be overwhelming. Can you think of activities that might help these people overcome their monotony? Why do you think a four-person model was selected for the Mars missions, as opposed to a two- or three- or five-person model? What would be the consequences of waiting until a larger group could go safely?
5. Because of the fact that Mars may have once supported primitive life forms like bacteria, it’s irresistible to imagine more advanced beings living there. What if you were one of the first explorers from Earth to arrive on Mars. Assuming you could communicate with any Martians you encountered, how would you explain why you had ventured to their planet to conduct experiments? Consider the encounters throughout history between explorers and the people they “discovered” as you formulate your answer. Would you have the “right” to visit Mars and conduct experiments there?
6. Inevitably, with any new space exploration endeavor, some citizens question the wisdom and fairness of spending billions of dollars that could otherwise be directed toward solving innumerable problems right here on Earth. Analyze both sides of the issue to determine where you stand. Compare your viewpoint with those of your classmates, teachers, and family members. Do you see any response patterns correlating to gender, age, education, or profession?

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You can evaluate groups on their sketches and descriptions using the following three-point rubric:
  • Three points:careful, detailed sketch; clear verbal description; sketch and description take into consideration the special requirements of the Martian surface and surroundings
  • Two points:adequate sketch, verbal description incomplete, sketch and description take into consideration the special requirements of the Martian surface and surroundings
  • One point:sketch lacking in detail, verbal description incomplete, sketch and description fail to take into consideration some important special requirements of the Martian surface and surroundings
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining which special requirements of the Martian surface and surroundings should be taken into consideration by each group.

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An Earthling’s First Words
The late scientist Carl Sagan brought the idea of extraterrestrial communication out of mere science fiction and into the realm of reality. Although your students may remember the 1997 movieContact, based on his novel of the same name, they may not be aware that Sagan and his colleagues devoted much time and effort to devising a bona fide system of communication with whoever might be “out there.” Ask students to imagine they have been tapped by NASA to develop a means of communicating with intelligent life on Mars, should such beings be encountered on future planned manned flights. Groups of students working together will need one or more planning sessions to discuss the parameters of their communication system. Will it be a kind of sign language? Will it include sounds, an alphabet, or hieroglyphic symbols? Will it be spoken, presented on a computer-like device, sent ahead to Mars on a disk or a chip? Once each group agrees upon its basic concepts, the students will need to consider what exactly they would like to be communicated—the words, phrases, and ideas that would form the basis of initial communication with extraterrestrial beings. Each group should present its message to the rest of the class, who should attempt to interpret it.

Shoot the Chute Competition
The first explorers on Mars will land with the aid of both parachutes and retro-rockets. Parachutes will work well in the thin atmosphere of Mars, but they’re not quite as effective as here on Earth. Have your students work individually to construct parachute landing devices that will (hopefully) protect an egg dropped from a specific altitude—say, 15 feet. The only rule is that the parachute must be folded in the beginning, then self-open as the vehicle drops—unless you want to add other parameters for students to consider, like limitations on the size and weight of the device. On the day of the competition, but before it begins, hold a class discussion on the merits of each student’s design. Ask students to predict which devices will offer the most protection and why. After you have dropped each device, discuss why the surviving eggs made it through the landing.

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Suggested Readings

Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet Mars
Paul Raeburn. National Geographic Society, 1998.
Put on the 3-D glasses you’ll find in this fabulous book to look at the photographs, pictures, and illustrations of Mars. Read about the history and people involved with missions to Mars and check out the Web sites provided.

Managing Martians
Donna Shirley (with Danielle Morton). Broadway Books, 1998.
The author of this book is an engineer who was the leader of the team that developed the Mars Sojourner rover. Remember the rover? It’s the small, solar-powered, self-guided vehicle that explored the Martian terrain so we could see the fabulous pictures from the Red Planet. Read about the author’s life and career and the detailed account of the rover’s construction and its mission to Mars.

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Searching for Evidence of Water on Mars [PDF]
Find information and additional activities on this topic at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab website.

The Mars Millenium Project
The Mars Millennium Project is a national science, arts and technology initiative. Join thousands of kids in community groups and K-12 classrooms and imagine a community on mars in the year 2030!

3-D Tour of the Solar System
Create a 3-D bulletin board of the Martian landscape with printable pictures which includes a panorama of the Viking landing site, Olympus Mons and other geological features.

Mars Surveyor 98
In 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander will arrive at the fourth planet from the Sun. Download, print-out and assemble a paper model of these vehicles and, frequently returning to this website.

Live From Mars Teacher’s Guide
A treasure chest of hands-on lesson plans that will have your students making Martian maps, designing and buidling rockets and land rovers, analyzing the latest geological and meteorological data from Mars, and terraforming the red planet.

Destination Mars
This NASA developed hands-on student guide is designed to increase students’ knowledge, awareness, and curiosity about the process of scientific exploration of Mars.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    centrifuge
Definition:A machine that whirls, creating artificial gravity.
Context:During training, astronauts and cosmonauts ride on a spinning centrifuge to test their ability to withstand large g-forces.

speaker    g-force
Definition:The feeling of increased weight that results from acceleration.
Context:As astronauts accelerate toward space during the launch from Cape Canaveral, they may experience up to seven g’s of acceleration, creating a crushing force that makes them feel seven times heavier than they normally feel.

speaker    meteor
Definition:A streak of light in the night sky produced by the passage though the Earth’s atmosphere of one of the countless small particles of solid matter in the solar system.
Context:NASA scientists discovered a space rock, which they claim may have been knocked off the surface of Mars, traveling through the solar system and then entering the Earth’s atmosphere as a meteor.

speaker    permafrost
Definition:A permanently frozen layer of soil in arctic regions.
Context:If all of the frozen water locked up as permafrost in the Martian soil were to melt, Mars would be covered with an ocean to a depth of 600 feet.

speaker    terraforming
Definition:Changing the environmental conditions on another planet to resemble those of Earth.
Context:In order to provide a replenishing food source, astronauts will use terraforming to release the carbon dioxide from Martian rocks needed for plants to grow.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Subject area:technology
Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual.
Benchmark 6-8:
Knows that technology and science are reciprocal (e.g., technology drives science as it provides the means to access outer space and remote locations, to collect and treat samples, to collect, measure, store, and compute data, and to communicate information; science drives technology as it provides principles for better instrumentation and techniques and the means to address questions that demand more sophisticated instruments).

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows that alternatives, risks, costs, and benefits must be considered when deciding on proposals to introduce new technologies or to curtail existing ones. (Are there alternative ways to achieve the same ends? Who benefits and who suffers? What are the financial and social costs and who bears them? How serious are the risks and who is in jeopardy? What resources will be needed and where will they come from?)

Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Subject area:science
Understands essential ideas about the composition and structure of the universe and the Earth’s place in it.
Benchmark 6-8:
Knows characteristics and movement patterns of the nine planets in our solar system (e.g., planets differ in size, composition, and surface features; planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits; some planets have moons, rings of particles, and other satellites orbiting them).

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows ways in which technology has increased our understanding of the universe (e.g., visual, radio, and x-ray telescopes collect information about the universe from electromagnetic waves; computers interpret vast amounts of data from space; space probes gather information from distant parts of the solar system; accelerators allow us to simulate conditions in the stars and in the early history of the universe).

Grade level:9-12
Subject area:science
Understands how species depend on one another and on the environment for survival.
Knows ways in which humans can modify ecosystems and cause irreversible effects (e.g., human population growth, technology, and consumption; human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, and atmospheric changes).

Grade level:9-12
Subject area:science
Understands basic features of the Earth.
Knows how life is adapted to conditions on the Earth (e.g., force of gravity that enables the planet to retain an adequate atmosphere; intensity of radiation from the sun that allows water to cycle between liquid and vapor).

Grade level:9-12
Subject area:life science
Understands the cycling of matter and flow of energy through the living environment.
Knows how the amount of life an environment can support is limited by the availability of matter and energy and the ability of the ecosystem to recycle materials.

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Wendy Buchberg, the Instructional Technology Support Specialist for the Corning-Painted Post (N.Y.) Area School District, and Ted Latham, a physics teacher at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, New Jersey.

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