Astrobiology in the Classroom


NASA – CERES Project –

Montana State University

Preliminary Edition




“The First Manned Mission to Mars






In this activity, students plan the first manned mission to Mars.  They first discuss, in small groups, some of the information that they might have heard regarding the red planet.  Next students use a list of different occupations and decide which of these occupations should be included in their crew for the mission to Mars .  During this section, they are also asked to reason about what supplies/conditions are needed aboard the ship for survival of the crew during their flight.  Finally, they hear a mock press release from NASA informing them of various aspects of Mars that are of scientific interest.  The students then must decide what it is that they want to learn about Mars and how they, as scientists, will pursue their goals.



The First Manned Mission to Mars


            From Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds to the 1990’s hit movie Total Recall, people of all ages have surmised, questioned, and explored our neighboring planet Mars.  Scientists have been trying for over three decades to learn more about the harsh environment of the red planet through NASA missions.  However, one thing that these missions have been missing is the direct participation of humans.  Up until now we have sent un-manned satellites and robotic landers to collect the data that is returned to Earth for analysis.  But what if we could send humans to Mars?  In this lesson, you and your classmates will plan the first manned mission to Mars.


Part I:  Concept Introduction


A.   What things do you know or have you heard from family, friends, or media about the planet Mars?   Discuss this question with your group and record your 5 most important or popular group ideas.










  1. Share your group ideas with the class.  In the front of the room, have your teacher or a classmate make a list of each group’s ideas.  If an idea is mentioned more than once, write a check mark next to the idea to indicate that another group had the same idea.  As a class, vote to decide on the 5 most important ideas from the list.  When voting, focus on how these ideas about Mars could be important to the future of humans?  Record the top 5 ideas below.









  1. Do you think that Mars is an important place for humans to investigate?  Why or why not?





Part II:  Planning the Mission


  1. Given the following data, determine how long it will take your space ship to travel from Earth to Mars ?  (Hint:  Use the distance formula of distance traveled = speed * time)

Distance from Earth to Sun:  1.5 x 108  km

Distance from Mars to Sun:   2.3 x 108 km

Maximum speed of ship:   3.05 x 103 km/hr

Minimum Time to get to Mars:________________(in hours)


                                                                                                          (in years)


B.    As you have discovered, the entire round trip mission will take several years so is critical to choose your mission’s crew very carefully.  From the following list of occupations, create a crew of 6 members.  Be sure to discuss as a group why each occupation selected is important.  Record your group’s reasoning for each choice.  If there is a occupation you feel is needed that is not listed, you may include it in your crew as long as you provide the reasoning supporting your choice.


                        Doctor                         Politician               Writer/Journalist               Cook

                        Teacher                       Physicist               Lawyer

                        Dentist                        Biologist                Construction Worker

                        Mathematician            Chemist                 Artist

                        Banker                         Pilot                      Historian

                        Athlete                        Astronomer           Priest

                        Engineer                      Mechanic              Actor

                        Plumber                       Electrician             Geologist


Mission Crew:













  1. It’s difficult to pack everything you need for a long vacation here on Earth, let alone a whole trip to Mars where one has to try and keep and entire crew alive in space for years at a time.  What supplies and environmental conditions do you feel are necessary to have on board you space ship in order to survive the voyage to Mars?  Compile a list of the 10 most important supplies/conditions.  For each supply/condition, give a brief explanation as to why it is important.














  1. As a class, compare and discuss your responses for C and D.  Come up with a top 10 class list for each question. 


                  Top 10 Occupations                                       Top 10 Supplies/Conditions














  1. As a result of your class discussion for question D would you change your answers for questions B and C?  If yes, how and why?  If no, why not? 









Part III:  Where would you land on Mars?


Now that you have selected a crew and decided what to bring on the ship, it is time to think about the red planet itself.  In this part of the activity, your teacher will act as a liaison between your Mars team and NASA.  After your teacher reads aloud the latest “NASA Press Release”, answer the following questions in your small groups.


  1. In the press release, many environments and characteristics of Mars were mentioned.  Which of these make Mars most attractive as a place to explore?  Explain your reasoning in detail.








  1. Before performing any mission or experiment, scientists generally have a clearly stated question or objective that they would like to know more about.  As a group, decide on a question you would like to explore or answer through your mission to Mars based on the information you learned from the press release.  Be careful because pursuing an answer to this question will become the primary focus of your mission.  Clearly state your mission question in the space provided.


Mission Question:




  1. In order to best pursue an answer to your mission question, where or in what area would you prefer to land on Mars?  Explain why you chose this area.









  1. What types of experiments or tests will you need to perform on Mars in order to answer your mission question? 







  1. What kind of equipment would you require to carry out these experiments or tests?








  1. Scientists and the general public have always been concerned about the matter of biological contamination between planets.  With travel between Earth and other planets, it is possible for various types of material to inadvertently be exchanged between our planet and our neighbors in space and vice versa.  When conducting experiments on other planets, it is important to make sure that Earth material of any kind is not “hitching” a ride on our spacecraft, surviving the trip through space, and then being mistakenly “discovered” on Mars through our experiments.  How will your team ensure that your test/experiment results are in no way influenced by things from Earth?












  1. After traveling the long distance to Mars, your team may discover things they would like to bring back to Earth for further study or may just want to bring back samples.  What methods will your team employ to ensure that your Mars samples will not contaminate or harm the environment here on Earth?  What kind of system or equipment might you need?












  1. Now pretend that your classmates are a team of newspaper reporters.  As a group, you need to prepare a detailed description about the important features of your mission that you would present at a press conference in an effort to convince the public that your mission should be funded by NASA.  Record your mission description below.  Be sure to explain the reasoning behind your choices for who is going, what is being taken on the trip and how you will avoid contamination.


Mission Description



















  1. Have each group present their mission description to the class.  After each presentation is complete your class should have a discussion and then a vote to determine which group’s mission should be funded by NASA. 

Provide a brief description of the mission that won and why it was selected.










  1. How do you think the knowledge gained from this mission could be useful here on Earth?






NASA Press Release



Mars has inspired our imagination over the centuries, and has been the focus of intense scientific interest for many years.  Mars has shown itself to be the most Earth-like of all the planets; it has polar ice caps that grow and recede with the change of seasons, and markings that appear to be similar to water channels on Earth.  It is a small rocky planet that developed relatively close to the Sun and has been subjected to some of the same planetary processes associated with the formation of the other "terrestrial" planets like Mercury, Venus, and Earth.  Martian tectonics—the formation and change of a planet's crust--differs from Earth's.  Where Earth tectonics involve sliding plates that grind against each other or spread apart in the seafloors, Martian tectonics seem to be vertical, with hot lava pushing upwards through the crust to the surface.  Mars has some remarkable geological characteristics including: the largest volcanic mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons (27 km high and 600 km across).  Volcanoes in the northern Tharsis region are so huge they deformed the planet's shape.  There is also a gigantic equatorial rift valley called the Vallis Marineris which is a canyon system that stretches a distance equivalent to the distance from New York to Los Angeles.


The average temperature at surface of Mars is approximately -86oC to -5 oC and the atmosphere is composed primarily of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon.  From this we find that Mars' atmosphere is now too thin and its temperature too cold to allow liquid water.  However, Mars certainly had surface water and groundwater once; liquid water shaped the valley networks in the highlands and the huge flood channels that cut from the highlands to the northern lowlands.  How much water was there?  Estimates range from the equivalent of an ocean 10 meters deep covering the entire surface to the equivalent of a layer kilometers deep.  Where did the water go? It could be underground in pools of groundwater, either small or huge depending on how much water Mars started with.  Or it could have escaped to space and been lost completely - the hydrogen from water can escape easily through Mars's low gravity and small magnetic field.

A huge deposit of the mineral hematite extends over 300 miles on the rocky planet.  It has led to speculation that there was water on Mars long enough for life to form.  The hematite mineral deposit "is really the first evidence we have that hot water was around long enough for a geological period of time so that potentially life could have had an opportunity to form," said Arizona State University Prof. Phil Christensen. Hematite is an iron oxide mineral that forms by a variety of ways that often involve water. The coarse-grained hematite spotted on Mars occurs on Earth around volcanic regions such as Yellowstone National Park. It is evidence that a large-scale hydrothermal system may have operated beneath the Martian surface.  Why is this important? "If you want to find out about possible life on Mars, the deposit is a good place to start," Christensen said. “You've got water, you've got heat, got energy.”

In April new information was discovered about the planet's north polar cap and its surrounding features, including dune fields that share similar properties to North Africa's sand dunes.  The presence of high altitude clouds above the polar cap was also revealed. During the winter, the polar cap was noted as expanding.  This suggests that liquid water may or may not be present at certain times of the Martian year.

In addition, a new composite photograph of a crater 25 miles wide and 1 to 1½ miles deep about 3,600 miles south of the Martian equator has been released to the public. The deep, dark area near the middle of the crater appeared to be a frozen pond and there was evidence of water seepage as well. All of this evidence of water and mineral deposits comes into play in our search for answers concerning the mysterious planet Mars.