In the News
This summer, a global dust storm encircled Mars, blocking much of the vital solar energy that NASA’s Opportunity rover needs to survive. After months of listening for a signal, the agency has declared that the longest-lived rover to explore Mars has come to the end of its mission. Originally slated for a three-month mission, the Opportunity rover lived a whopping 14.5 years on Mars. Opportunity beat the odds many times while exploring the Red Planet, returning an abundance of scientific data that paved the way for future exploration.
Scientists and engineers are celebrating this unprecedented mission success, still analyzing data collected during the past decade and a half and applying lessons learned to the design of future spacecraft. For teachers, this historic mission provides lessons in engineering design, troubleshooting and scientific discovery.
How They Did It
Launched in 2003 and landed in early 2004, the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were the second spacecraft of their kind to land on our neighboring planet.
Explore standards-aligned lessons that bring Mars Exploration Rover science and engineering to students.
Preceded by the small Sojourner rover in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity were substantially larger, weighing about 400 pounds, or 185 kilograms, on Earth (150 pounds, or 70 kilograms, on Mars) and standing about 5 feet tall. The solar-powered rovers were designed for a mission lasting 90 sols, or Mars days, during which they would look for evidence of water on the seemingly barren planet.
Dust in the Wind
Scientists and engineers always hope a spacecraft will outlive its designed lifetime, and the Mars Exploration Rovers did not disappoint. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, expected the lifetime of these sun-powered robots to be limited by dust accumulating on the rovers’ solar panels. As expected, power input to the rovers slowly decreased as dust settled on the panels and blocked some of the incoming sunlight. However, the panels were “cleaned” accidentally when seasonal winds blew off the dust. Several times during the mission, power levels were restored to pre-dusty conditions. Because of these events, the rovers were able to continue their exploration much longer than expected with enough power to continue running all of their instruments.
To troubleshoot and overcome challenges during the rovers’ long mission, engineers would perform tests on a duplicate model of the spacecraft, which remained on Earth for just this purpose. One such instance was in 2005, when Opportunity got stuck in the sand. Its right front wheel dug into loose sand, reaching to just below its axle. Engineers and scientists worked for five weeks to free Opportunity, first using images and spectroscopy obtained by the rover’s instruments to recreate the sand trap on Earth and then placing the test rover in the exact same position as Opportunity. The team eventually found a way to get the test rover out of the sand trap. Engineers tested their commands repeatedly with consistent results, giving them confidence in their solution. The same commands were relayed to Opportunity through NASA’s Deep Space Network, and the patient rover turned its stuck wheel just the right amount and backed out of the trap that had ensnared it for over a month, enabling the mission to continue.
A few years later, in 2009, Spirit wasn’t as lucky. Having already sustained some wheel problems, Spirit got stuck on a slope in a position that would not be favorable for the Martian winter. Engineers were not able to free Spirit before winter took hold, denying the rover adequate sunlight for power. Its mission officially ended in 2011. Meanwhile, despite a troubled shoulder joint on its robotic arm that first started showing wear in 2006, Opportunity continued exploring the Red Planet. It wasn’t until a dust storm completely enveloped Mars in the summer of 2018 that Opportunity finally succumbed to the elements.
The Final Act
Dust storm season on Mars can be treacherous for solar-powered rovers because if they are in the path of the dust storm, their access to sunlight can be obstructed for months on end, longer than their batteries can sustain them. Though several dust storms occurred on Mars during the reign of the Mars Exploration Rovers, 2018 brought a large, thick dust storm that covered the entire globe and shrouded Opportunity’s access to sunlight for four months. Only the caldera of Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system, peeked out above the dust.
The transparency or “thickness” of the dust in Mars’ atmosphere is denoted by the Greek letter tau. The higher the tau, the less sunlight is available to charge a surface spacecraft’s batteries. An average tau for Opportunity’s location is 0.5. The tau at the peak of the 2018 dust storm was 10.8. This thick dust was imaged and measured by the Curiosity Mars rover on the opposite side of the planet. (Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator.)
Since the last communication with Opportunity on June 10, 2018, NASA has sent more than 1,000 commands to the rover that have gone unanswered. Each of these commands was an attempt to get Opportunity to send back a signal saying it was alive. A last-ditch effort to reset the rover’s mission clock was met with silence.
Why It’s Important
The Mars Exploration Rovers were designed to give a human-height perspective of Mars, using panoramic cameras approximately 5 feet off the surface, while their science instruments investigated Mars’ surface geology for signs of water. Spirit and Opportunity returned more than 340,000 raw images conveying the beauty of Mars and leading to scientific discoveries. The rovers brought Mars into classrooms and living rooms around the world. From curious geologic formations to dune fields, dust devils and even their own tracks on the surface of the Red Planet, the rovers showed us Mars in a way we had never seen it before.
The rovers discovered that Mars was once a warmer, wetter world than it is today and was potentially able to support microbial life. Opportunity landed in a crater and almost immediately discovered deposits of hematite, which is a mineral known to typically form in the presence of water. During its travels across the Mars surface, Spirit found rocks rich in magnesium and iron carbonates that likely formed when Mars was warm and wet, and sustained a near-neutral pH environment hospitable to life. At one point, while dragging its malfunctioning wheel, Spirit excavated 90 percent pure silica lurking just below the sandy surface. On Earth, this sort of silica usually exists in hot springs or hot steam vents, where life as we know it often finds a happy home. Later in its mission, near the rim of Endeavor crater, Opportunity found bright-colored veins of gypsum in the rocks. These veins likely formed when water flowed through underground fractures in the rocks, leaving calcium behind. All of these discoveries lead scientists to believe that Mars was once more hospitable to life than it is today, and they laid the groundwork for future exploration.
Imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, both orbiting the Red Planet, has been combined with surface views and data from the Mars Exploration Rovers for an unprecedented understanding of the planet’s geology and environment.
Not only did Spirit and Opportunity add to our understanding of Mars, but also the rovers set the stage for future exploration. Following in their tracks, the Curiosity rover landed in 2012 and is still active, investigating the planet’s surface chemistry and geology, and confirming the presence of past water. Launching in 2020 is the next Mars rover, currently named Mars 2020. Mars 2020 will be able to analyze soil samples for signs of past microbial life. It will carry a drill that can collect samples of interesting rocks and soils, and set them aside in a cache on the surface of Mars. In the future, those samples could be retrieved and returned to Earth by another mission. Mars 2020 will also do preliminary research for future human missions to the Red Planet, including testing a method of producing oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere.
It’s thanks to three generations of surface-exploring rovers coupled with the knowledge obtained by orbiters and stationary landers that we have a deeper understanding of the Red Planet’s geologic history and can continue to explore Mars in new and exciting ways.
Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get students doing engineering, troubleshooting and scientific discovery just like NASA scientists and engineers!
Mars in a Minute
These 60-second videos answer some of the most frequently asked questions about our planetary neighbor, Mars, and the spacecraft that explore it.
Time 1 min
Robotic Arm Challenge
In this challenge, students will use a model robotic arm to move items from one location to another. They will engage in the engineering design process to design, build and operate the arm.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
In this cross-curricular STEM and language arts lesson, students learn about planets, stars and space missions and write STEM-inspired poetry to share their knowledge of or inspiration about these topics.
Time 1-2 hrs
Exploring the Colors of Mars
Students use satellite and rover images to learn about the various features and materials that cause color variation on the surface of Mars, then create their own “Marscape.”
Time 1-2 hrs
Mission to Mars Unit
In this standards-aligned unit, students learn about Mars, design a mission to explore the planet, build and test model spacecraft and components, and engage in scientific exploration.
Planetary Pasta Rovers
Using only pasta and glue, students design a rover that will travel down a one-meter ramp and then travel an additional one meter on a smooth, flat surface.
Time 1-2 hrs
Explore Mars With Scratch
Students learn about surface features on Mars, then use a visual programming language to create a Mars exploration game.
Time 1-2 hrs
Mars Marathon: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use the mathematical constant pi to calculate how many times the Mars rover Opportunity's wheels rotated to get the rover to a marathon distance.
Time < 30 mins
Looking for Life
Using the fundamental criteria for life, students examine simulated extraterrestrial soil samples for signs of life.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Design a Crew Exploration Vehicle
Students will design, build and test a crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, to carry astronauts to Mars – meeting size, mass and payload requirements.
Time 1-2 hrs
In these lessons, students program a rover to complete various challenges.
Time > 2 hrs
Collecting Light: Inverse Square Law Demo
In this activity, students learn how light and energy are spread throughout space. The rate of change can be expressed mathematically, demonstrating why spacecraft like NASA’s Juno need so many solar panels.
Time < 30 mins
Where Do Spacecraft Get Their Power?
This whiteboard video describes how "radioisotope power" allows many spacecraft, such as NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars, to stay powered while traveling through space and exploring other planets.
Time < 30 mins
- NASA Mars Exploration Website: Mars Exploration Rovers
- Mission Highlights and Resources
- Send a Postcard to Opportunity
- Top Science Results
- Infographic: Off-World Driving Distances
- Infographic: Opportunity By the Numbers
- Iconic Images
- Living on Mars Time
Try these related resources for students from NASA’s Space Place
In the News
Looking up at the Moon can create a sense of awe at any time, but those who do so on the evening of January 20 will be treated to the only total lunar eclipse of 2019. Visible for its entirety in North and South America, this eclipse is being referred to by some as a super blood moon – “super” because the Moon will be closest to Earth in its orbit during the full moon (more on supermoons here) and “blood" because the total lunar eclipse will turn the Moon a reddish hue (more on that below). This is a great opportunity for students to observe the Moon – and for teachers to make connections to in-class science content.
How It Works
Eclipses can occur when the Sun, the Moon and Earth align. Lunar eclipses can happen only during a full moon, when the Moon and the Sun are on opposite sides of Earth. At that point, the Moon can move into the shadow cast by Earth, resulting in a lunar eclipse. However, most of the time, the Moon’s slightly tilted orbit brings it above or below Earth’s shadow.
The time period when the Moon, Earth and the Sun are lined up and on the same plane – allowing for the Moon to pass through Earth’s shadow – is called an eclipse season. Eclipse seasons last about 34 days and occur just shy of every six months. When a full moon occurs during an eclipse season, the Moon travels through Earth’s shadow, creating a lunar eclipse.
Unlike solar eclipses, which require special glasses to view and can be seen only for a few short minutes in a very limited area, a total lunar eclipse can be seen for about an hour by anyone on the nighttime side of Earth – as long as skies are clear.
What to Expect
The Moon passes through two distinct parts of Earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse. The outer part of the cone-shaped shadow is called the penumbra. The penumbra is less dark than the inner part of the shadow because it’s penetrated by some sunlight. (You have probably noticed that some shadows on the ground are darker than others, depending on how much outside light enters the shadow; the same is true for the outer part of Earth’s shadow.) The inner part of the shadow, known as the umbra, is much darker because Earth blocks additional sunlight from entering the umbra.
At 6:36 p.m. PST (9:36 p.m. EST) on January 20, the edge of the Moon will begin entering the penumbra. The Moon will dim very slightly for the next 57 minutes as it moves deeper into the penumbra. Because this part of Earth’s shadow is not fully dark, you may notice only some dim shading (if anything at all) on the Moon near the end of this part of the eclipse.
At 7:33 p.m. PST (10:33 p.m. EST), the edge of the Moon will begin entering the umbra. As the Moon moves into the darker shadow, significant darkening of the Moon will be noticeable. Some say that during this part of the eclipse, the Moon looks as if it has had a bite taken out of it. That “bite” gets bigger and bigger as the Moon moves deeper into the shadow.
At 8:41 p.m. PST (11:41 p.m. EST), the Moon will be completely inside the umbra, marking the beginning of the total lunar eclipse. The moment of greatest eclipse, when the Moon is halfway through the umbra, occurs at 9:12 p.m. PST (12:12 a.m. EST).
As the Moon moves completely into the umbra, something interesting happens: The Moon begins to turn reddish-orange. The reason for this phenomenon? Earth’s atmosphere. As sunlight passes through it, the small molecules that make up our atmosphere scatter blue light, which is why the sky appears blue. This leaves behind mostly red light that bends, or refracts, into Earth’s shadow. We can see the red light during an eclipse as it falls onto the Moon in Earth’s shadow. This same effect is what gives sunrises and sunsets a reddish-orange color.
A variety of factors affect the appearance of the Moon during a total lunar eclipse. Clouds, dust, ash, photochemical droplets and organic material in the atmosphere can change how much light is refracted into the umbra. Additionally, the January 2019 lunar eclipse takes place when the full moon is at or near the closest point in its orbit to Earth – a time popularly known as a supermoon. This means the Moon is deeper inside the umbra shadow and therefore may appear darker. The potential for variation provides a great opportunity for students to observe and classify the lunar eclipse based on its brightness. Details can be found in the “Teach It” section below.
At 9:43 p.m. PST (12:43 a.m. EST), the edge of the Moon will begin exiting the umbra and moving into the opposite side of the penumbra. This marks the end of the total lunar eclipse.
At 10:50 p.m. PST (1:50 a.m. EST), the Moon will be completely outside the umbra. It will continue moving out of the penumbra until the eclipse ends at 11:48 p.m (2:48 a.m. EST).
What if it’s cloudy where you live? Winter eclipses always bring with them the risk of poor viewing conditions. If your view of the Moon is obscured by the weather, explore options for watching the eclipse online, such as the Time and Date live stream.
Why It’s Important
Lunar eclipses have long played an important role in understanding Earth and its motions in space.
In ancient Greece, Aristotle noted that the shadows on the Moon during lunar eclipses were round, regardless of where an observer saw them. He realized that only if Earth were a spheroid would its shadows be round – a revelation that he and others had many centuries before the first ships sailed around the world.
Earth wobbles on its axis like a spinning top that’s about to fall over, a phenomenon called precession. Earth completes one wobble, or precession cycle, over the course of 26,000 years. Greek astronomer Hipparchus made this discovery by comparing the position of stars relative to the Sun during a lunar eclipse to those recorded hundreds of years earlier. A lunar eclipse allowed him to see the stars and know exactly where the Sun was for comparison – directly opposite the Moon. If Earth didn’t wobble, the stars would appear to be in the same place they were hundreds of years earlier. When Hipparchus saw that the stars’ positions had indeed moved, he knew that Earth must wobble on its axis!
Lunar eclipses are also used for modern-day science investigations. Astronomers have used ancient eclipse records and compared them with computer simulations. These comparisons helped scientists determine the rate at which Earth’s rotation is slowing.
Ask students to observe the lunar eclipse and evaluate the Moon’s brightness using the Danjon Scale of Lunar Eclipse Brightness. The Danjon scale illustrates the range of colors and brightness the Moon can take on during a total lunar eclipse, and it’s a tool observers can use to characterize the appearance of an eclipse. View the lesson guide below. After the eclipse, have students compare and justify their evaluations of the eclipse.
Evaluating a Lunar Eclipse
Students use the Danjon Scale of Lunar Eclipse Brightness to illustrate the range of colors and brightness the Moon can take on during a total lunar eclipse.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Use these standards-aligned lessons and related activities to get your students excited about the eclipse, Moon phases and Moon observations:
Observing the Moon
Students identify the Moon’s location in the sky and record their observations over the course of the moon-phase cycle in a journal.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Students learn about the phases of the moon by acting them out.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Whip Up a Moon-Like Crater
Whip up a moon-like crater with baking ingredients as a demonstration for students.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Teachable Moment: What’s a Supermoon and Just How Super Is It?
Are supermoons as super as they're made out to be? Learn what causes them and explore related activities for teachers and students.
Measuring the Supermoon
Students use analog and digital tools to measure the Moon’s apparent size and brightness.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Modeling the Earth-Moon System
Students learn about scale models and distance by creating a classroom-size Earth-Moon system.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Make a Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator
Like a decoder wheel for the Moon, this calendar will show you where and when to see the Moon and every moon phase throughout the year!
- Try these related resources for students from NASA’s Space Place:
- Lunar Eclipses and Solar Eclipses – This guide for kids provides an overview of lunar and solar eclipses.
- Why Does the Moon Have Craters? – Check out NASA’s Space Place for the answer, written just for kids.
- NASA Moon Website – Find out more about the Moon along with the NASA robots and humans who have visited it.
This year, Montana took a leap toward bringing the Next Generation Science Standards to the state’s K-12 teachers by kicking off its first state science teachers conference. This pilot meeting brought together more than 100 of the state’s top educators, who shared best practices with the teaching community. One of these experts was Natalia Kolnik, a native of Bozeman, Montana, who leads education programs at the Children’s Museum of Bozeman. Her program stood out among attendees (including us) not just because her programs involved designing missions to Mars, but also because of her commitment to making connections with scientists in the area. We caught up with Kolnik to learn more about how, with the help of local companies – including some that have produced components for JPL missions – she turned a JPL lesson into an exploration of careers in STEM.
Mission to Mars Unit
In this 19-lesson, standards-aligned unit, students learn about Mars, design a mission to explore the planet, build and test model spacecraft and components, and engage in scientific exploration.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your teaching background.
I am the director of education at the Children’s Museum of Bozeman and its STEAMlab in Bozeman, Montana. I’ve been the director there for six months, so I teach various lessons in a couple different programs for students ages 6 through 12.
I was born and raised in Bozeman and earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and fine arts from the University of Montana, Missoula. I also have a master’s in education from the University of Oxford.
I’ve been teaching formal education classes to different grade levels for the last 13 years in various places around the world, including South Korea and Kosovo.
What unique challenges do you face engaging or addressing the needs of your students?
Teaching at the Children’s Museum is wonderful and challenging for the same reason: the diversity of the students. It’s like an educational casserole. Our STEAMlab programs are primarily filled with 6- to 12-year-old students who come to us from different school districts and different towns in Montana – or even from different states and countries. During the school year, they learn in public, private and home-school settings. Since the students come with such a variety of educational backgrounds and are a variety of ages, having them all together in a program, like a summer camp, can be challenging.
However, bringing various age groups together allows students of the same age to not feel left out if one of their age peers already knows the material, since it is likely that several others in the room have not encountered it either. Also, since our activities are hands-on, interactive and incorporate a high-tech element, even if students know the concepts and have done the project or activity before, they are still excited to do it again and help others.
It can also be tough to work with so many new students, rather than to teach in a classroom setting, in which you’ve had months to develop relationships with the students and establish a classroom rhythm, so students know what is expected. On the other hand, because we run short programs – one day to one week – we have the luxury of flexibility and of letting the content breath. We allow students to take that extra time for exploration, reflection and redesign that might not be possible in a regular classroom setting or time frame.
What NASA/JPL Education lessons have you been using with your students?
JPL has such a wealth of resources. It is so easy to incorporate them into all kinds of STEAMlab programs. For instance, we were able to design and offer a summer camp about Mars in large part because of all of the amazing, up-to-date information available on JPL’s website about Mars missions, the planet and all the new discoveries occurring on a daily basis. Activities such as Imagine Mars allowed students to plan a trip to Mars that would allow them to arrive safely and potentially build a habitat. As part of that lesson, we had the students extend their mission by creating a board game capturing the difficulties that could arise, despite even the best planning.
How did you modify the NASA/JPL Education lessons you used to best serve your specific students?
Being so far from a NASA site means we need to be creative to find connections between our community and careers in science. The support of our local business community is an incredible resource for us to build that bridge. We have one such partnership with the Montana Photonics Industry Alliance, or MPIA. Since the Curiosity Mars rover has laser diodes made by Quantel, a company right here in Bozeman that’s part of MPIA, we were able to help students connect the local with the supra-global.
This past semester, volunteers from these photonic companies have been meeting at the museum, brainstorming, planning, designing, redesigning and creating a spectroscope activity to use as one of the museum’s field-trip programs. We used the museum’s Full STEM Ahead summer camp as a pilot test of the activity. The MPIA volunteers found light sources they work with in their jobs (that could be safely viewed by students) to demonstrate the variety of light spectra all around us. Meanwhile, I used the STEAMlab’s 3D printers to print all the end caps for the students’ spectroscopes, which are small devices capable of separating wavelengths of light into individual colors.
We divided students into two age groups to observe how they might interact differently with the activity. For example, while one of the MPIA volunteers talked with half of the students about the photonics industry, ways in which photonic technology is used, and related career pathways in Bozeman, other volunteers led the rest of the students in using and understanding their spectroscopes, observing different lights and colors with their new tools.
How did the activity help you meet your objectives? How did students react to the lesson?
The goal for the STEAMlab is to foster an engaging, fun high-tech space in the museum where students ages 7 and older can be a part of a community of other young tech explorers, inventors and tinkerers. It’s a place to try out all kinds of ideas to fix a problem or build something new, all while reflecting and talking out the design and its challenges with friends and adult mentors nearby. And if something doesn’t work the way they intended, which happens a lot, then they’re encouraged to go ahead and try it again.
I gathered feedback about the spectroscopy activities by asking students a few questions and letting them write and/or draw their answers on sticky notes, with each color representing a different question. Their responses varied depending on age but were overwhelmingly positive. All of the students were able to respond with something they remembered learning that was new to them. And their suggestions were primarily about wanting more time to decorate and experiment with their spectroscopes and wanting to talk to more people who work with lasers.
I heard back from the parents of our student mentors about how their children – who had been a part of the activity as helpers – had come home talking all about lasers, how they now want to pursue a career in photonics and now they point out photonics companies that they drive past every day.
Have a great idea for implementing NASA research in your class or looking to bring NASA science into your classroom? The Educator Professional Development Collaborative, or EPDC, can help. The EPDC at JPL serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact JPL education specialist Brandon Rodriguez at email@example.com. Note: Due to the popularity of EPDC programs, JPL may not be able to fulfill all requests.
Outside the Southern California area? The EPDC operates in all 50 states. Find an EPDC specialist near you.
The EPDC is managed by Texas State University as part of the NASA Office of Education. A free service for K-12 educators nationwide, the EPDC connects educators with the classroom tools and resources they need to foster students’ passion for careers in STEM and produce the next generation of scientists and engineers.