The Red Planet: Learning about Mars Missions

By: Meghan Thoreau, OSU Extension Educator, Community Development & STEM, Pickaway County

Access the Red Planet: learning about Mars Missions presentation here.

Students learned about the Red Planet and the history of Mars exploration that date back to the early 1960s. We saw the first close-up photographs of Mars lunar-type impact craters in 1964 from NASA’s Mariner 4 and started studying its solar winds. Six decades later we are witnessing another phase of global exploration of Mars. Last July 2020 approximately 7 months ago three spacecraft launched to Mars.

Why did they all launch around the same time?

Launches to Mars are best attempted every 26-months when our two planets align in their orbits for the shortest trip.

February’s Mars Missions

The first mission to reach Mars was the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Hope Mission. The country has never launched a mission beyond Earth’s orbit before and hopes to drive a new economy around science and not oil. Hope’s pro entered Mars’ orbit on February 9, 2021, and will stay in orbit between 12,430 and 26,700 miles above the surface, completing a revolution of Mars once every 55-hours studying the atmosphere of Mars and the AMrtian weather.

UAE photo source:

The second interplanetary mission to reach Mars came from China’s Tianwen-1 (Heavenly Questions) robotic spacecraft consisting of an orbiter, deployable camera, lander, and rover. The spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit on February 10, 2021. China may become the third nation to reach the surface of Mars! The science objectives its mission hopes to achieve:

  • create a geological map of Mars
  • explore the characteristics of the soil and potentially locate water-ice deposits
  • analyze the surface material composition
  • investigate the atmosphere and climate at the surface
  • understand the electromagnetic and gravitational fields of the planet

Photo sources: and

The NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover landed in Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18, 2021, and will search for signs of ancient microbial life, which will advance NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars. The rover has a drill to collect core samples of Martian rock and soil, then store them in sealed tubes for pickup by a future mission that would ferry them back to Earth for detailed analysis.

Perseverance will also test technologies to help pave the way for future human exploration of Mars, including deploying the first Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars.

Earth Benefits from Space Exploration

Private companies and government space programs are shaping the future of space exploration. The research and engineering effects going into these missions have a direct benefit to Earth as many of the technologies and uses can also be applied here on Earth. Read this Culture Trip article, The Earthly Benefits of a Mission to Mars, to learn more.

Hands-on Virtual Mars Base Camp Challenges

Each club member received Mars Base Camp Kit and together we explored Mars challenges together virtually through Zoom. The Landing Zone Surveyor challenge allows youth to discover features on the surface of Mars that are important, selecting a safe landing site, learning about the Martian landscape, and determine where to set up a future base camp.

NASA lives and breaths the engineering design process. There have been over a dozen surface landing attempts to land on the surface of Mars, but with each attempt, a learning process occurs through the successes, failures, and re-engineering for future space missions.

Image from

Together we all dropped parachutes onto a grided Mars surface. This involved some skills and unknown variables in the parachute deployment. There were several possible outcomes, some failures, and some successful rover landings.

Together we identifying the different landing sites both visually through photographs and imagery. We shared reading out loud the associated landing site cards and gained a better understanding of the varied Martian landscape. We learned a lot of essential geography terms, such as channel, dune, fault, ice cap, impact crater, lander, lava flow, orbiter, remote sensing, rover, and volcano, and learned how they compared to the geography of Earth.

STEM club member participating virtually in Landing Zone Surveyor Challenge

The second Mars challenged we tackled was the Red Planet Odyssey. This activity involved learning more about simple circuits, simple motors, power, mechanical gears, and how they all work together with using the engineering design process to build a STEM rover and solve basic mechanical problems.

Space Exploration 101: the Scale of the Universe

By: Meghan Thoreau, OSU Extension Educator, Community Development & STEM, Pickaway County

Click here to access the Scale of the Universe overview lesson taught in Virtual STEM Club this month!

We started with the basics. The atom is the smallest observable thing in the universe. We reviewed that atoms are comprised of smaller components called protons, neutrons, and electrons. These components were thought to be the fundamental building blocks of the universe until we discovered that even protons and neutrons have smaller components inside called quarks. A quark is a type of elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter. Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons, the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic nuclei. (1) Watch the video below, an elementary student explains the breakdown from matter, atom, to a quark:


Stars Remind Us the Past is Real and Ever Expanding

The night sky has always fascinated humans beings and their desire to discover new things and find reasons for how things work and space exploration is no exception. Humans have created surreal technologies to observe space and its distant objects – such as the Hubble Telescope – which for the past 30-years has been orbiting Earth at 17,000 miles per hour and providing some amazing visual discoveries. The technology helps us to magnify tiny spectrums in space and allows us to view them with the naked eye. The space telescope is 43.5 feet long or about the size of a school bus and weighs as much as 3-African elephants or 24,500-lbs. From space, it provides resolution 10-times better than even the larger telescopes on Earth and can see a dime clearly from 86-miles away.

TOP LEFT: Hubble Telescope compared to a school bus. TOP RIGHT: location of the Lagoon Nebula, a giant interstellar cloud in the constellation Sagittarius. It is one of only two star-forming nebulae faintly visible to the eye from mid-norther latitudes. BOTTOM LEFT: new image of the Lagoon Nebula from the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. BOTTOM RIGHT: the zoomed-in image of the Lagoon Nebula from the Hubble Telescope. (2)

We live here on Earth, which is known as a perfect planet due to its size, placement in our solar system, and the natural resources available. The sun is the largest thing in our solar system, taking up 99.86% of our entire solar system’s mass. Another way of thinking about it is comparing the sun to the size of a basketball, then Earth would be the size of a sesame seed. Our solar system contains 8-planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Our solar system is located inside the Milky Way Galaxy, but there are billions of other galaxies. To put our galaxy’s size into perspective, imagine our sun to be a microscopic white blood cell, then the Milky Way would be the size of the United States.

Wrapping Your Mind Around the Size of the Universe Can Hurt Your Brain

Space is infinitely large. The furthest observable known universe is around 14-billion light-years away, which is around the time the big bang happened, meaning light has only had enough time to travel 12 billion light-years since the beginning of time. For most space objects, we use light-years to describe their distance. A light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth-year. One light-year is about 6-trillion miles in distance. Although we can only observe objects 12-billion light-years away, the estimated size of the total universe in a sphere shape is 92 billion light-years and constantly expanding outwards to this day! The video below does a great job trying to put the scale of the Universe into perspective: