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August 12, 2017

Kacey Templin

Planning Your Mission to Mars

Topics: STEM Education / Play, STEM

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On August 5th, the Curiosity rover celebrated its fifth anniversary working on Mars. Since 2012, Curiosity has been exploring the surface of the red planet, working tirelessly to fulfill its primary mission to find out if Mars is, or was, suitable for life. NASA is planning on sending humans to the surface of our closest planetary neighbor in the next few decades, but they have to make sure they learn as much as possible before sending astronauts. Our eventual colonization of Mars has been a hot topic of late, so what better way to educate your children about the journey than to have them plan a trip themselves? In this post, we’ll take you through all the basic steps for a successful mission from one planet to the next!

Who would live on Mars?

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Before you plan to set up a Martian colony, you need to make sure you have people with all kinds of important skills. Farmers, engineers, and doctors would all be very helpful. Have your child write out a list of each type of person that could contribute to a functioning society on Mars. Remind them that Mars is 34.8 million miles away when their solar orbits are the very closest, so it wouldn’t be very easy to call back to Earth and ask for a technician! For a little inspiration, this article on PayScale lists a few jobs and why they might be needed.

What is Mars like?

We’ve established who would be best for our Mars colony, but you have to make sure you know a thing or two about the planet you’re about to make your home.

Mars is much smaller than Earth, and is home to the largest mountain in the Solar System, Olympus Mons. The atmosphere is super thin, and definitely not breathable, containing more than 95 percent carbon dioxide and less than 1 percent oxygen. Not only that, but Mars is very cold – the average temperature on the planet is minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit! Spaces suits are an absolute must when you want to spend some time outside. You and your family can learn more about how Mars is different from Earth in this cool article by Universe Today.

To get a sense of Mars’ surface, you can build a model using Sciencing’s instructions here. You’ll create a classic paper mache plane, but this time, try to make it as accurate as possible using a map of Mars.

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How do we get to Mars?

You’ve assembled your team, studied the environment, and picked an ideal spot to start your colony. Now you have to get yourself to Mars. You’re going to be aboard your ship for 9 months on the way to your new home, so you need to make sure that your spaceship is built for optimum comfort and durability. Have your family draw what their spaceship would look like, then talk about why you designed it the way you did. If you need a little inspiration, Business Insider has a neat infographic that shows outlines of all the spaceships humans have designed. Go ahead and be creative – maybe in the future, your spaceship model will become a real thing!

How would we live on Mars?

Hooray! You’ve made it to the red planet! Now the real work begins. You have to set up a home base where you’ll spend most of your time in the beginning. For those who enjoy a challenge, try to spend a night inside of a tent without leaving. Make sure to bring everything you need! 

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Mars’ gravity is only 1/3 of the gravity we know here on Earth – so someone who weighs 100 pounds here would weigh around 33 pounds on Mars. This sounds awesome (think about how high you could jump!), but there are some real health implications stemming from a microgravity environment. Regular exercise regiments would be required to combat muscle deteriorations and osteoporosis. Recently, NASA created a “Train Like an Astronaut” program that gets kids moving, and educates them about the importance of health in space. This website gives you tons of exercise activities that you can do as a family.

While Mars doesn’t have strong wind gusts (the highest recorded gusts top out at 60 miles per hour, less than half the speed of some hurricane-force winds on Earth), dust storms are a real threat. Occasionally, one dust storm will cover the entire surface of the planet! Individual dust particles are very small and stick to surfaces they contact like Styrofoam packing peanuts. Since the best option for energy is through solar power, special attention must be paid to these storms as they could diminish the efficiency of solar panels.

In order to dust off your solar panels, you’ll need to hop on your rover and drive over to the solar farm. But what will your rover look like? For this, head on over to Library Maker’s blog post where she describes how her students built a Mars rover using candy!  

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You’re also going to need to grow your own food. Since you can’t use the Martian air to produce crops, you’ll have to create a greenhouse. Greenhouses are buildings that absorb and trap solar energy, which allows plants to grow in climates that might be too cold (and Mars is certainly one of those places). To demonstrate how a greenhouse works on a much smaller scale, Simply Learning has provided this Tiny Greenhouse Activity to teach your children about plant growth.

Once you’ve figured out how to create a thriving colony, you’ll have time to update your friends back on Earth. Have your children write a letter that details their entire journey, what they liked the most, and what they think about living on Mars. It’s a great way to get your children to reflect on everything that they learned from these activities.

Sending people to Mars is a difficult challenge, but it’s one that NASA thinks is possible. Right now, NASA has astronauts on the International Space Station, studying what it’s like to live in a microgravity environment. The agency is also building and testing the Orion spacecraft, which is designed to take humans on a deep space mission. It won’t reach Mars, but it’s a step towards that goal. By the 2030s, we should see the very first people stand on the red planet! Maybe then Curiosity won’t have to celebrate its birthday all alone!

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