Perseverance, NASA's most advanced Mars rover yet, is scheduled to leave Earth for its seven-month journey to the Red Planet this summer.
Only the fifth NASA rover destined for Mars, Perseverance is designed to build on the work and scientific discoveries of its predecessors. Find out more about the rover's science goals and new technologies below. Plus, learn how you can bring the exciting engineering and science of this mission to students with lessons and DIY projects covering topics like biology, geology, physics, mathematics, engineering, coding and language arts.
Why It's Important
Perseverance may look similar to Curiosity – the NASA rover that's been exploring Mars since 2012 – but the latest rover's new science instruments, upgraded cameras, improved onboard computers and new landing technologies make it uniquely capable of accomplishing the science goals planned for the mission.
Looking for signs of habitability
The first of the rover's four science goals deals with studying the habitability of Mars. The mission is designed to look for environments that could have supported life in the past.
Perseverance will land in Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) crater that scientists believe was once filled with water. Data from orbiters at the Red Planet suggest that water once flowed into the crater, carrying clay minerals from the surrounding area, depositing them in the crater and forming a delta. We find similar conditions on Earth, where the right combination of water and minerals can support life. By comparing these to the conditions we find on Mars, we can better understand the Red Planet's ability to support life. The Perseverance rover is specially designed to study the habitability of Mars' Jezero Crater using a suite of scientific instruments, or tools, that can evaluate the environment and the processes that influence it.
Seeking signs of ancient life
The rover's second science goal is closely linked with its first: Perseverance will seek out evidence that microbial life once existed on Mars in the past. In doing so, the mission could make progress in understanding the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe – the scientific field known as astrobiology.
Exploring Mars Lessons
Get students engaged in the excitement of NASA's next mission to Mars with standards-aligned STEM lessons.
It's important to note that the rover won't be looking for present-day life. Instead, its instruments are designed to look for clues left behind by ancient life. We call those clues biosignatures. A biosignature might be a pattern, object or substance that was created by life in the past and can be identified by certain properties, such as chemical composition, mineralogy or structure.
To better understand if a possible biosignature is really a clue left behind by ancient life, we need to look for biosignatures and study the habitability of the environment. Discovering that an environment is habitable does not automatically mean life existed there and some geologic processes can leave behind biosignature-like signs in non-habitable environments.
Perseverance's third science goal is to gather samples of Martian rocks and soil. The rover will leave the samples on Mars, where future missions could collect them and bring them back to Earth for further study.
Scientists can learn a lot about Mars with a rover like Perseverance that can take in situ (Latin for "on-site") measurements. But examining samples from Mars in full-size laboratories on Earth can provide far more information about whether life ever existed on Mars than studying them on the Martian surface.
Perseverance will take the first step toward making a future sample return possible. The rover is equipped with special coring drill bits that will collect scientifically interesting samples similar in size to a piece of chalk. Each sample will be capped and sealed in individual collection tubes. The tubes will be stored aboard the rover until the mission team determines the best strategic locations on the planet's surface to leave them. The collection tubes will stay on the Martian surface until a potential future campaign collects them for return to Earth. NASA and the European Space Agency are solidifying concepts for the missions that will complete this campaign.
Preparing for future astronauts
Like the robotic spacecraft that landed on the Moon to prepare for the Apollo astronauts, the Perseverance rover's fourth science goal will help pave the way for humans to eventually visit Mars.
Before humans can set foot on the Red Planet, we need to know more about conditions there and demonstrate that technologies needed for returning to Earth, and survival, will work. That’s where MOXIE comes in. Short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, MOXIE is designed to separate oxygen from carbon dioxide (CO2) in Mars' atmosphere. The atmosphere that surrounds the Red Planet is 96% CO2. But there's very little oxygen – only 0.13%, compared with the 21% in Earth’s atmosphere.
Oxygen is a crucial ingredient in rocket fuel and is essential for human survival. MOXIE could show how similar systems sent to Mars ahead of astronauts could generate rocket fuel to bring astronauts back to Earth and even create oxygen for breathing.
Flying the first Mars helicopter
Joining the Perseverance rover on Mars is the first helicopter designed to fly on another planet. Dubbed Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration that will be the first test of powered flight on another planet.
The lightweight helicopter rides to Mars attached to the belly of the rover. After Perseverance is on Mars, the helicopter will be released from the rover and will attempt up to five test flights in the thin atmosphere of Mars. After a successful first attempt at lifting off, hovering a few feet above the ground for 20 to 30 seconds and landing, the operations team can attempt incrementally higher and longer-distance flights. Ingenuity is designed to fly for up to 90 seconds, reach an altitude of 15 feet and travel a distance of nearly 980 feet. Sending commands to the helicopter and receiving information about the flights relayed through the rover, the helicopter team hopes to collect valuable test data about how the vehicle performs in Mars’ thin atmosphere. The results of the Mars Helicopter's test flights will help inform the development of future vehicles that could one day explore Mars from the air. Once Ingenuity has completed its technology demonstration, Perseverance will continue its mission on the surface of the Red Planet.
How It Works
Before any of that can happen, the Perseverance Mars rover needs to successfully lift off from Earth and begin its journey to the Red Planet. Here's how the launch is designed to ensure that the spacecraft and Mars are at the same place on landing day.
Explore virtual events and programming related to the launch of NASA's next Mars rover, including education workshops and conversations with mission experts.
About every 26 months, Mars and Earth are at points in their orbits around the Sun that allow us to launch spacecraft to Mars most efficiently. This span of time, called a launch period, lasts several weeks. For Perseverance, the launch period is targeted to begin at 4:50 a.m. PDT (7:50 a.m. EDT) on July 30 and end on Aug. 15. Each day, there is a launch window lasting about two hours. If all conditions are good, we have liftoff! If there's a little too much wind or other inclement weather, or perhaps engineers want to take a look at something on the rocket during the window, the countdown can be paused, and teams will try again the next day.
Regardless of when Perseverance launches during this period, the rover will land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, at around 12:30 PST. Engineers can maintain this fixed landing date because when the rover launches, it will go into what's called a parking orbit around Earth. Depending on when the launch happens, the rover will coast in the temporary parking orbit for 24 to 36 minutes. Then, the upper stage of the rocket will ignite for about seven minutes, giving the spacecraft the velocity it needs to reach Mars.
Like the Curiosity rover, Perseverance will launch from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on an Atlas V 541 rocket – one of the most powerful rockets available for interplanetary spacecraft.
Watch a live broadcast of the launch from the Kennedy Space Center on NASA TV and the agency’s website. Visit the Perseverance rover mission website to explore a full listing of related virtual events and programming, including education workshops, news briefings and conversations with mission experts. Follow launch updates on NASA's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.
The launch of NASA's next Mars rover and the first Mars Helicopter is a fantastic opportunity to engage students in real-world problem solving across the STEM fields. Check out some of the resources below to see how you can bring NASA missions and science to students in the classroom and at home.
Virtual Education Workshops
Teaching Space With NASA - Engineering the Perseverance Mars Rover
In this one-hour live workshop, NASA experts will provide an in-depth look at the engineering behind the Perseverance Mars rover. Register to join the Q&A with our experts.
Teaching Space With NASA - Exploring Mars Science With the Perseverance Mars Rover
In this one-hour live workshop, we’ll get an in-depth look at how Perseverance will explore the science of Mars, building on our understanding of the Red Planet and preparing for future human missions. Register to join the Q&A with our experts.
Teaching Space With NASA
Join NASA experts and education specialists for virtual education workshops. Ask questions, get teaching resources and share the excitement of space exploration with students.
Lessons for Educators
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.
Collection: Exploring Mars
Explore a collection of standards-aligned lessons for educators all about engineering and preparing NASA spacecraft for Mars.
Collection: Preparing for Mars
Explore a collection of standards-aligned lessons for educators all about engineering and preparing NASA spacecraft for Mars.
Collection: Launching to Mars
Explore a collection of standards-aligned lessons for educators all about launching NASA spacecraft to Mars.
Collection: Landing on Mars
Explore a collection of standards-aligned lessons for educators all about landing NASA spacecraft on Mars.
Activities for Students
Collection: Exploring Mars
Make a cardboard rover, design a Mars exploration video game and explore more STEM projects, slideshows and videos for students.
Learning Space With NASA at Home
Explore space and science activities you can do with NASA at home. Watch video tutorials for making rockets, Mars rovers, Moon landers and more. Plus, find tips for learning at home!
Meet JPL Interns of Mars 2020
Read stories about interns helping prepare NASA's next Mars rover for its launch this summer.
NASA #CountdownToMars STEM Toolkit
Explore links to activities, lessons, interactives, social media and more resources from NASA to participate in the Perseverance Mars rover mission.
- Website: Perseverance Mars Rover
- Website: NASA Mars Exploration
- Website: Space Place - All About Mars
- Watch Online – Virtual Events
It only takes minutes into a conversation with Farah Alibay about her job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to realize there's nowhere else she'd rather be. An engineer working on the systems that NASA's next Mars rover will use to maneuver around a world millions of miles away, Alibay got her start at JPL as an intern. In the six years since being hired at the Laboratory, she's worked on several projects destined for Mars and even had a couple of her own interns. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Alibay to learn more about her current role with the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, how her internships helped pave her path to JPL and how she hopes interns see the same "beauty" in the work that she does.
What do you do at JPL?
I’m a systems engineer. I have two jobs on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission right now. One is the systems engineer for the rover's attitude positioning and pointing. It's my job to make sure that once it's on the surface of Mars, the rover knows where it's pointed, and as it's moving, it can update its position and inform other systems of where it is. So we use things like a gyroscope and imagery to figure out where the rover is pointed and where it's gone as it's traveling.
My other job is helping out with testing the mast [sometimes called the "head"] on the rover. I help make sure that all of the commands and movements are well understood and well tested so that once the rover gets to Mars, we know that the procedures to deploy the mast and operate all of the instruments are going to work properly.
This is probably a tough question to answer, but what is an average day like for you?
Right now, I spend a lot of time testing – either developing procedures, executing procedures in the test bed or reviewing data from the procedures to make sure we're testing all of our capabilities. We start off from requirements of what we think we should be able to do, and then we write our procedures to test out those requirements. We test them out with software, and then we come to the test bed to execute them on hardware. Things usually go wrong, so we'll repeat the procedures a few times. Eventually, once we think we've had a successful run, we have a review.
Most of my testing is on the mobility side. However, it hasn't really started in earnest yet since we're waiting for the rover's "Earth twin" [the engineering model] to be built. Once that happens, later this summer, I will be spending a good chunk of my time in the Mars Yard [a simulated Mars environment at JPL], driving the rover around and actually using real data to figure out whether the software is behaving properly.
What's the ultimate goal of your work at JPL?
All the work that I do right now is in support of the Perseverance rover mission. On the mobility team, we work on essential functions that are going to be used as the rover drives around on Mars.
One of the really neat things about Perseverance is that it can do autonomous driving. So the rover is able to drive up to 200 meters on its own, without us providing any directional information about the terrain. Working on this new ability has been the bulk of testing we're doing on the mobility team. But this new capability should speed up a lot of the driving that we do on Mars. Once we get smart in planning rover movements, we'll be able to plan a day's worth of activity and then tell the rover, "Just keep going until you're done."
You came to JPL as an intern. What was that experience like and how did it shape what you're doing now?
I spent two summers as an intern at JPL during my Ph.D. The first one was in 2012, which was the summer that the Curiosity Mars rover landed. That was a pretty incredible experience. As someone who had only spent one summer at NASA before, seeing the excitement around landing a spacecraft on Mars, well, I think it's hard not to fall in love with JPL when you see that happen. During that summer, I worked on the early days of the A-Team [JPL's mission-concept study team], where I was helping out with some of the mission studies that were going on.
My second summer, I worked in the Mars Program Office, looking at a mission concept to return samples from Mars. I was helping define requirements and look at some of the trade studies. We were specifically looking at designs for orbiters that could bring back samples from Mars. A lot of that fed into my graduate research. It's pretty cool to be able to say that I applied my research and research tools to real problems to help JPL's Mars sample return studies.
What brought you to JPL for your internship? Was working at JPL always a dream for you?
Yeah, working at NASA was always a dream, but going into my Ph.D., I became more and more interested in robotics and planetary exploration. I have a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, but I also have a minor in planetary science. There are very few places on Earth that really put those two together besides JPL, and it's the only place that has successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars. So, given my passions and my interests, JPL emerged at the top of my list very, very quickly. Once I spent time here, I realized that I fit in. My work goals and my aspirations fit into what people were already doing here.
What moments or memories from your internships stand out the most?
The Curiosity landing was definitely one of the highlights of my first internship.
Another one of the highlights is that JPL takes the work that interns do really seriously. I was initially surprised by that, and I think that's true of every intern I've met. Interns do real work that contributes to missions or research. I remember, for example, presenting some of my work to my mentor, who was super-excited about some of the results I was getting. For me, that was quite humbling, because I saw my research actually helping a real mission. I think I'll always remember that.
How do you think your internship shaped your career path and led to what you're doing now?
My internships definitely opened a lot of doors for me. In particular, during my second internship, I also participated in the Planetary Science Summer School at JPL. Throughout the summer, we met with experts in planetary science to develop a mission concept, and then we came together as a team to design the spacecraft in one week! It was an intense week but also an extremely satisfying one. The highlight was being able to present our work to some of the leading engineers and scientists at JPL. We got grilled, and they found a whole lot of holes in our design, but I learned so much from it. How often do you get to have your work reviewed by experts in the field?
Through these experiences, I made a lot of connections and found mentors who I could reach out to. Since I knew JPL is where I wanted to be, I took it upon myself to knock on every single door and make my case as to why JPL should hire me. I actually never interviewed, because by then, they decided that I had done my own interviews!
My internships and the summer school also gave me an idea of what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do. So I was a step ahead of other applicants. I always tell interns who come to JPL that if they're not particularly liking their work in the first few weeks, they should take the opportunity to go out and explore what else JPL has to offer. I believe that there's a place for everyone here.
Have you had your own interns before?
I had interns my first two summers working at JPL. Two of my interns are now also full-time employees, and I always remind them that they were my interns when I see them! I also have an intern this summer who I'm extremely excited to work with, as she'll be helping us prepare some of the tools we'll need for operating the Perseverance rover on Mars.
What is your mentorship style with interns?
My goal for interns is mostly for them to learn something new and discover JPL, so I usually let my interns drive in terms of what they want to achieve. Normally, I sit down with them at the start of summer and define a task, because we want them to be doing relevant work. But I encouraged them to take time off from what they're doing and explore JPL, attend events that we have organized for interns and decide whether this is a place for them or not.
It's kind of a dual mentorship. I mentor them in terms of doing their work, but also mentor them in terms of helping them evolve as students and as early career engineers.
What do you hope they take away from their experience?
I hope they take advantage of this unique place and that they fall in love with it the way I did. Mostly, though, I'm hoping they discover whether this is a place for them or not. Whatever it is, I want them to be able to find their passion.
What would be your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?
I think the way into JPL, or whatever career that you're going to end up in, is to be 100% into what you're doing. If you're in school, studying aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering, do hands-on projects. The way I found opportunities was through the Planetary Science Summer School and the Caltech Space Challenge, which were workshops. I also did something called RASC-AL, which is a different workshop from the National Institute of Aerospace. Do all of those extracurricular things that apply your skills and develop them.
If you have the opportunity to attend talks, or if your advisor gives you extra work that requires you to reach out to potential mentors, take the time to do it.
My other piece of advice is to knock on doors and talk to people who do something in your field that you're interested in. Don't be shy, and don't wait for opportunities to come to you. Especially if you're already at JPL, or if you have mentors that are. Leverage that network.
Last question: If you could play any role in NASA's mission to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars, what would it be?
I chose to come to JPL because I like working on robotic missions. However, a lot of these robotic missions are precursors to crewed lunar and Mars missions. So I see our role here as building up our understanding of Mars and the Moon [to pave the way for future human missions].
I've worked on different Mars missions, and every one has found unexpected results. We're learning new things about the environment, the soil and the atmosphere with every mission. So I already feel like my work is contributing to that. And especially with the Perseverance rover mission, one of its main intentions is to pave the way for eventually sending humans to Mars.
This story is part of an ongoing series about the career paths and experiences of JPL scientists, engineers, and technologists who got their start as interns at the Southern California laboratory. › Read more from the series
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
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
UPDATE - March 16, 2015: The pi challenge answer key is now available for download.
In honor of the "Pi Day of the Century" (3/14/15), the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has crafted another stellar math challenge to show students of all ages how NASA scientists and engineers use the mathematical constant pi.
The 2015 problem set -- available as a web infographic and printable handouts -- features four real-world, NASA math problems for students in grades 4 through 11, including: calculating the dizzying number of times a Mars rover's wheels have rotated in 11 years; finding the number of images it will take the Dawn spacecraft to map the entire surface of the dwarf planet Ceres (the first dwarf planet to be explored); learning the potential volume of water on Jupiter's moon Europa; and discovering what fraction of a radio beam from our most distant spacecraft reaches Earth.
The word problems, which were crafted by NASA/JPL education specialists with the help of scientists and engineers, give students insight into the real calculations space explorers use every day and a chance to see some of the real-world applications of the math they're learning in school.
"Pi in the Sky 2" Downloads:
To help set the stage for this special blog post, it seems fitting to start with a great piece of advice given to me by Scott Maxwell, a Mars rover driver at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "There will come a time, possibly more than once, but at least once, where you feel like you simply can't go on -- you're too tired, it's too hard. When that happens, go on. You can do it. You can do it."
An enormous sense of dedication had already become abundantly clear by the time I sent out an email request to interview the team that drives the rovers on Mars. I received the immediate response of "yes!" at 3:45 a.m. from an enthusiastic Scott Maxwell - who clearly not only loves his job, but also loves sharing it with others. I instantly recognized his name and was eager to see if he was the same engaging "voice of Mars" who I had seen in so many NASA stories. As it turned out, he was not only gracious and helpful in lining up the interview, but he was also passionate about sharing his work with others.
After making an entrance up two floors and badge access doors, we were happily greeted by the same Scott who I had pictured, smiling from ear to ear, as well as a room full of rover drivers who he had arranged for me to interview. It was a tremendous surprise and delight, as I looked around the room and instantly recognized a few of the faces from television and various NASA documentaries.
Scott is the poster child for being passionate about something and making it happen. From an early age, he wanted to explore far-off worlds, and he worked hard to make those dreams come true. Scott's dedication and brilliance has helped in developing much of the software, operating procedures and commands that are used for the rovers on Mars today. (I encourage you to watch the charismatic interviews Scott has done on the Mars rovers and JPL as well as check out his ongoing five-year blog about his adventures with the Mars rovers at: http://marsandme.blogspot.com.)
Within a matter of minutes, Scott brought us up to speed on a brief history of Mars, the rovers and other expeditions NASA has sent and will send to the Red Planet. It was immediately clear that Scott lives, eats and breathes rover driving. The way he explained the technicalities and details of the Martian missions and rovers with such precision, spot-on memory and passion, made me feel as though I was part of this exclusive group of brilliant individuals.
One of the faces in the room I instantly recognized was rover driver Vandi Verma, whose interesting background and childhood story I had seen on television. I remembered how passionate she was about robotics from an early age. When she completed all the schooling and learning she could in her native India, she set her sights on the United States to get the education and experience that would take her to the pinnacle of robotics: working with and driving rovers on Mars. She went through the citizenship process necessary to work for the U.S. government all while earning her Doctorate and pursing top-level robotics research until being hired by JPL for flight operations with the Mars Exploration Rover project. (For a fascinating look at her history, read her bio.) I had no idea I would be lucky enough to interview Vandi, let alone receive a behind-the-scenes tour of what she was working on.
She showed us a detailed 3D contour map of the Martian landscape and Husband Hill, a legendary Martian landform for Mars Exploration Rover drivers. She had been re-driving the particularly challenging and difficult terrain of Husband Hill -- which took the Mars rover Spirit a full year to successfully climb in 2005 -- in preparation for the arrival of the rover Opportunity at a similar feature called the Highlands. All the while, Vandi's fingers seemed to navigate the keyboard with lightning speed, entering commands that exposed breathtaking images and grids of the Martian terrain.
Sitting directly beside her was another face that I instantly recognized from years of following Mars exploration missions. Chris Leger, a youthful, hip-looking and brilliant member of the team who's responsible for some of Mars robotics and space-robotics most significant advancements and undertakings. Chris was part of the original driving team that took Spirit up Husband Hill's incredibly challenging 30-degree, boulder-laden slopes; he also does his own bouldering and climbing here on Earth twice a week. (For a mind-blowing description of all he's done, visit: http://www-robotics.jpl.nasa.gov/people/Chris_Leger/. )
We were joined by even more legendary rover drivers, and the room was alive with varying generations of drivers and programmers reaching back to the days of NASA's Mars Pathfinder mission. The conversation was in full swing.
The moment seemed fitting to ask if the team had ever seen anything strange that made the hair rise on the back of their necks, and if so, what did they do? One of the gentlemen seated at the table wearing a big smile, shorts and a cool Hawaiian shirt, spoke up about a strange event involving what looked like a "white rabbit" on the surface of Mars. I listened intently to John Wright, an engaging and cool dude who used to work at Hughes Aircraft, founded by one of my personal favorite heroes and explorers, Howard Hughes.
John drove Spirit for six years and is one of the five developers of the software that the rover drivers use to build command sequences and visualize and rehearse the rovers' activities. He tells great stories, including this one about the "white rabbit." He said one day an image came through from Spirit showing a feature that looked an awful lot like a white rabbit in the distance, and in the preceding pictures, it was gone! The group immediately called up a team of engineers and scientists to examine the finding. It was later concluded that the "white rabbit" was simply a small piece of fabric from the rover's atmospheric descent landing bags that had blown past in the wind. It was a story and lesson that the whole team could relate to with many adding that they feel as though they've earned a degree in geology because they can now quickly identify rocks or anomalies, know what to steer clear of and avoid, and what to investigate.
We said goodbye to Chris and Vandi as they were late for a meeting, which I could only imagine was highly technical and dealt with strategically planning future movements for billion-dollar spacecraft. We were then joined by two more rover drivers coming straight from the driving room. It seemed that once again, Scott had gone a step above in rallying all the troops for this interview, and I couldn't seem to stop smiling. Paolo Bellutta and Khaled Ali wcgere just as charismatic and enthusiastic as the rest of the team, and instantly, they started sharing stories that had us on the edge of our seats.
Paolo's introduction said it all: "My name is Paolo, and I am from Italy, and please no jokes about driving." The room erupted. What followed was a mesmerizing story about a treacherous navigation next to an 80 meter cliff in Victoria Crater on Mars with Paolo at the helm. Due to the estimations of the terrain combined with the long response time of sending and receiving data and commands between Earth and Mars, there was a period when Paolo had to wait in utter silence wondering if a valuable supplier of otherworldly exploration and knowledge had gone off the radar ... Then, after a grueling two-hour silence, the images and data started to appear again with huge relief.
Paolo's story triggered a conversation on safety parameter software programs, which are always evolving and incorporated into rover planning and mission architecture -- usually written and constructed by the drivers and planners themselves. Little did I know that seated at our table, quiet but insightful, was Brian Cooper, who was one of the original software developers and Mars Exploration Rover mission architects. He was also responsible for hiring most of the drivers there with us that day. He said that at the beginning of the Mars rover missions, it was difficult to know exactly what terrain and routes were secure and what parameters to observe. But over time, the parameter software development and safety autonomy programs have been getting better and better, incorporating gridlines with built-in "keep-out zones" and danger-sensing abilities.
Next, we heard from rover driver Khaled Ali, whose personal background made me want to never stop learning. While listening to Khaled explain how he eventually landed a job as a rover driver, Scott interjected excitedly saying, "Khaled sometimes goes off and takes on other jobs around JPL, such as building test-beds for testing Moonrise, stuff like that. And we always welcome him back with open arms!" This resonates as a prime example of the collaborative, never-stop-learning attitude that seems to be especially prevalent within this team and at JPL.
The last of the usual five rover driving meetings per day was about to begin, and Scott suggested we boogie to the command room and catch the tail end of the meeting. As we walked into the room -- "quiet as mice," per Scott's advice -- the first thing I saw was a table laden with coffee, computers, papers and many of the same people that were just in the other room with us discussing various commands and undecipherable software language displayed on a screen up front. Scott whispered to us that they were reviewing the day's planned movements and trajectory for the rover Opportunity. Every day there are multiple meetings and checks, then double checks, ensuring that the scientific goals, safety parameters and command sequences are exactly on target to provide 100 percent safety and redundancy for the mission. Paolo and John were stationed at computers typing what appeared to my eyes as a foreign language and discussing and answering questions from all angles of the room. We exited the room as it was clear they were in the midst of highly technical planning. And my mentor Jason and I just smile at each other like little kids in a candy store.
Just when I didn't think my brain could absorb any more, Scott had more adventures and stops planned for us, including another room where Bubba, a full-size replica of a Mars Exploration Rover (like the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity) was located. Scott gave us such a detailed breakdown of the rover components and functionalities that I felt like a VIP with a backstage pass.
Our last stop was the rover testing facility, located in a building specially designed with soil and rocks mimicking Martian terrain and housing full-size, functional rovers. The Planetary Science Summer School group was taking a tour and peering down at the rovers through the glass as we walked in. Within seconds Scott had the full attention of the group and was telling them stories. It wasn't long before he was convincing the whole group to join us downstairs inside the testing room. There was no stopping Scott then, and to the sheer delight of the group, as well as myself, we saw a green light flash on the badge reader and heard the door click open: access granted! Three feet in front of me, in the soil, was where the very engineers, scientists, drivers, and programmers who are responsible for the rovers do their testing!
One of the group-members asked Scott what his "Free Spirit!" shirt meant and he explained that after six years of what was planned as a three-month mission, Spirit had become trapped in a very fine soil, granular sediment, which is much like powder. And making things more difficult was the fact that only four of her six wheels could help in the exit strategy. After months of testing and brainstorming right in that very room, using those very rovers, they were unable to free Spirit from her Martian trap. She lost her ability to align her solar panels with the sun, and after a long winter, the signal was lost.
The loss of Spirit, however, in no way marks the end a continually busy schedule for Scott, Vandi, Chris, Paolo, John, Brian and Khaled. In fact, the team just celebrated the arrival of Spirit's twin rover, Opportunity, at Endeavor crater after a three-year trek across the Red Planet. It's a major milestone for the Mars Exploration Rover mission and one that will continue the Mars rovers' amazing history of discovery.
We said goodbye to Scott and expressed our gratitude as best we could. I couldn't help but think that he and his team are some of JPL's most valuable assets, and I blurted it out as Scott crossed the street, like a little kid cheering for his favorite team. He laughed, smiled and swiped his badge, entering another world.