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How to Engage Kids in the Mars Landing and Exploration

This illustration depicts NASA's Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. Perseverance will land at the Red Planet's Jezero Crater a little after 3:40 p.m. EST (12:40 p.m. PST) on Feb. 18, 2021.
This illustration depicts NASA's Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars. Perseverance will land at the Red Planet's Jezero Crater a little after 3:40 p.m. EST (12:40 p.m. PST) on Feb. 18, 2021. | NASA/JPL-Caltech
The most advanced rover ever built by NASA lands on Mars very soon and scientists need caregivers and educators’ help to encourage kids to get curious about the rover and space exploration. Lucky for us, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist has some simple ideas on how to begin.
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Caregivers and educators, NASA needs your kids' help.

Have your children or students ever wondered about life elsewhere in the universe? Have they ever been curious about what’s on other planets? Well, scientists at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are curious about that too. They all strive to answer questions and solve problems. They’ve actually figured out how to land a robot on Mars and how to take pictures on other planets. But there are a lot of problems and questions that scientists are trying to figure out. Caregivers and educators, this is where your kids come in.

Here is their mission straight from scientists at JPL: “Engage [your] curious minds, get a good science education and come help us solve problems.”

The most advanced rover built by NASA was launched July 30, 2020, and will be landing on Mars, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in hopes of answering the questions we mentioned earlier. Ota Lutz, Ph.D., a STEM elementary and secondary education specialist at JPL, summarizes the rover’s mission: “We’re landing the most capable rover on the surface of Mars in arguably one of the most dangerous places to land. … We’re basically looking for signs of past life on Mars and this rover has the potential to determine whether those signs existed.”

With this groundbreaking mission that will likely change our understanding of the universe, Lutz provides insight into how you can encourage children’s engagement in the Mars rover’s landing.

“It’s going to be one of those turning points in their knowledge and understanding of the universe. It’s going to be for everybody, but we’re going to have another generation after this that has a completely different understanding than the generations before,” Lutz says. “And besides that, it’s just super cool to land a robot on Mars.”

Here are some discussion points and activities to get you and your kids started on your space exploration mission at home and beyond.

Embrace Curiosity

“The first thing I would do is have them talk about Mars,” Lutz said. “Learn a little bit about Mars and why we go there.” NASA provides a website with a little bit of everything about exploring Mars, from previous missions, facts about the Red Planet to future exploration plans. Check out their Mars Exploration website.

It’s also important to encourage kids to ask questions. And let’s face it; sometimes, kids ask the toughest questions. But it’s vital for caregivers and educators to know that they don’t have to have all the right answers. Engage your own curiosity with them and find out the answer together. Teach them not only to ask questions but how to investigate and research answers.

“I think it’s important to model learning together because nobody knows everything. That’s why we do science, to learn more,” Lutz says. “The more science we do, the more stuff we learn, and the more stuff we learn we don’t know.”

The second thing would be to follow along with the mission by trying out these activities at home and in class that will relate to what scientists are working on.

Meet Perseverance and Ingenuity

This cutting-edge rover, named Perseverance (Percy, for short), is taking along a “technology demonstration” which Lutz explains consists of “things we don’t know if they’ll work, but we want to try.”

On the belly of the rover is a specialized helicopter named Ingenuity, which will allow scientists to explore a wider range of Mars. This is new technology that will change the way future exploration will look. The remarkable thing about the helicopter is that it’s specifically designed to fly on Mars, which was a tricky thing to engineer. Helicopters need air to fly and Mars’ atmosphere is about 1% as thick as Earth’s atmosphere. “Their blades push against the air making a force called lift and they lift off the ground,” Lutz says. “So, if you don’t have much air, how do you fly?”

Help kids in making their own Mars Helicopter with this activity. But don’t stop there. Challenge your brains and try to improve its performance. After you experiment with your first design, try to figure out with your kids, “How can we make it fly better? What would make it fly longer or faster?” Try folding the helicopter blades differently, cutting the template differently or using thicker cardstock or thinner paper. Experiment! This encourages children to engage in the engineering design process.

Learn how to build a helicopter and improve its design like NASA engineers.
Learning Space: Make a Paper Mars Helicopter

“It gives kids the opportunity to do what NASA engineers do. It’s the same concept of investigation and testing and refining and retesting until you get your desired result,” Lutz says.

So now you’ve got your helicopter exploring Mars. How do you receive the information of what it finds?

Build a Strong Antenna Tower

Lutz explains the importance of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) in communicating with Perseverance and Ingenuity. By using a series of antennas and giant parabolic dishes placed at three different points on Earth, Lutz explains that this is how NASA is able to communicate with the rover and orbiters on and around Mars. They can give it commands and receive information back through these towers.

Try building your own antenna tower with this activity and see how strong you can make it together.

Keep Exploring the Universe

There is so much to exploring space. Challenge your curiosity and follow along with the Mission to Mars Student Challenge, with activities, videos and lessons that will keep kids engaged and informed about NASA’s exploration leading up to the landing and even after.

The excitement doesn’t end when Perseverance lands; far from it. Within the first few hours, there will be photos received of the river delta in which the rover will be landing.

On Earth, we will be able to see and hear what Perseverance sees and hears on Mars. But more than that, “we’re going to be able to follow this mission for years,” Lutz says.

Watch the live broadcast of the Mars Landing on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. The stream begins at 11:15 a.m. PST with a special program that includes virtual JPL tours and interviews with leading scientists. But make sure you’re tuned in around noon for the aptly named "seven minutes of terror" when Perseverance will make its official landing.

So, remind your kids to follow along with these activities and remember their mission:

  1. Stay curious.
  2. Build, explore and experiment.
  3. Go help NASA solve all of their questions about outer space.
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