Family Activities to prepare for Curiosity’s landing on Mars

Here at Lie Back, Look Up, you will find plenty of stargazing and astronomy activities to do with your family.  Many of these activities include free printables, as well as some tutorials and videos.  Please let me know in the comments how your family has enjoyed these activities!

The landing of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars on August 5th can be an exciting event for your family.  Your first step is to brush up on the basics, then choose a few of these activities to do together.

Ask Dr. C– Your Personal Mars Expert

This website allows you to “ask” questions about Mars to a computerized scientist.  While typing your questions to a virtual scientist has its limitations, this site does a pretty good job of interpreting your questions and giving back detailed answers.  Dr. C seems to know quite a bit about Mars, and this can be a fun way for young children to learn a little more about the Red Planet.  You can also ask him questions about the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Earth-Moon-Mars Balloons

Constructing a scale model of Earth, the Moon and Mars can help kids to gain some perspective on the size of Mars.  Using a blue balloon for Earth, a white balloon for the Moon and a red balloon for Mars, first have your children blow them up to the sizes that they think the three celestial bodies would be relative to each other.  Once they’ve done this, write the name of each using a permanent marker.  Now use the table below for the scale sizes for each balloon. (Note that Mars’ two moons, Phobos & Deimos, are included in the table.  This is a great thing to point out to your child– that using this scale, Mars’ two moons would be the size of grains of sand!)

Your older children can determine on their own what the scaled down size should be by dividing the actual diameter (in kilometers) by a factor of 638.  (i.e., Earth’s diameter is 12,756, so dividing it by 638 gives a scale size of approximately 20 centimeters.)  You can give your teenager a challenge by having them come up with a scale factor to use in this model, then ask them to blow up their balloons using that scale.  They will probably come up with a different scale, but as long as they can get the balloons that size, it will work!

Design a Martian Calendar

Harness your child’s creativity by asking them to create a Martian calendar.  Discuss with your kids the definition of day (the time it takes a planet to rotate once on its axis) and year (the time it takes a planet to orbit once around the Sun).  Once they’ve designed it, you can have them construct their actual calendar on the computer or by hand.

Here are a few facts that might be useful:

  • One Martian day = 24.6 hours (not much longer than the Earth’s!)
  • It takes Mars 670 of its days (687 Earth days) to orbit the Sun
  • Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos
  • Mars has a tilt similar to the Earth’s, so Mars has seasons too!

Some questions to ask your child:

  • Are you going to have weeks?  If so, how many days will you have in a week?
  • Are you going to have months?  How many?  How many days/weeks in a month?  What will you name them?
  • Will you need to have any “leap years”?
  • Are you going to have holidays?

Visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (virtually) and watch a few cool videos

This NASA website has quite a bit of detailed information on this mission, but my favorite part are the fantastic videos.  You can watch everything from Robotic Arm Target Practice to Building Curiosity: Mars Rover Power.

Creating Craters

Craters are a very common planetary surface feature, found on all of the terrestrial planets.  We don’t see very many on the Earth’s surface due to the process of plate tectonics and surface weathering.  Planets like Mars, without any active plate tectonics or flowing water (at least, not at the present!) have a greater number of craters, which indicates a much older surface.  Impact craters are caused by projectiles, traveling at very high velocities, hitting the surface.  Exploring the effect that the size and velocity (speed) of the projectile can have on the size of the crater can be a fun and educational activity for kids.

Materials:  flour, cake pan, cocoa powder, ruler, and three different sized “projectiles” (marbles, coins, rocks, etc)

Procedure:  Pour about an inch of flour into the cake pan to represent the  rock and dirt on the planet.  Before each “impact”, smooth the flour using the ruler and sprinkle a thin layer of cocoa powder on the surface.

Effect of Projectile Size:  First have your kids make a hypothesis about how the size of the projectile will affect the size and shape of the impact crater.  Then have them create a data chart and record the sizes of their three projectiles.  You can also have them draw a picture of each projectile and the impact crater that it makes.  To make the craters, hold the projectile one meter above the surface of the flour and drop it.  Have them measure the size of the crater in their data chart.  Repeat this for the other projectiles and discuss the outcome.  (Don’t forget to add a thin layer of cocoa powder before each “impact”.)

Effect of Projectile’s Velocity:  Have your kids hypothesize again about how the velocity, or speed, of the projectile will affect the size and shape of the impact crater.  Choose one of the projectiles to use for all three speeds.  Choose three different heights from which to drop the projectile (the higher the drop, the higher the velocity of the projectile).  Measure the size of the crater each time, then discuss the outcome.

Watch a Mars Movie

No, I don’t mean science fiction like Disney’s John Carter.  I mean a great NOVA movie like Is There Life on Mars? (which you can watch on-line for free!).  A Traveler’s Guide to the Planets: Mars is a great video on the basics of the Red Planet.  This is my favorite series on planetary science, and you can download each episode on iTunes for $2.99.

Giveaway Winners

A big thank you to everyone who helped celebrate the launch of Lie Back, Look Up. I’m so pleased and humbled at the support that I’ve received for this site. A special thank you to my sister-in-law and friend, Meagan Francis. Her support and advice have been priceless. I hope that you all continue to visit, and please let me know if there is anything that you’d like to see here.

Congratulations to the three giveaway winners:

I will be contacting you via email so that I can send out your planispheres, which will hopefully aid in your stargazing pursuits. Again, thank you for visiting, and don’t forget to Lie Back, Look Up for essay help writers!

Stargazing Snacks

Here at Lie Back, Look Up, you will find plenty of stargazing and astronomy activities to do with your family.  Many of these activities include a free printable, as well as tutorials and videos.  Please let me know in the comments how your family has enjoyed these activities!

Getting kids excited about stargazing is important if you want to inspire a love for the night sky.  One way to do this is to involve them in gathering and making the snacks for your stargazing session.  Of course any favorite snacks will do, but for younger children, helping to make “themed” snacks can add a level of excitement.

Each of these snacks can be made by small children, with the assistance of an adult– my two oldest children (7 and 4.5) have both helped me to make these. While working together, each snack allows for discussion of an astronomy topic. These treats are also ideal for packing up and eating later, which is important if you are going to take them stargazing!

Meteorite Krispie Treats

Seeing a meteor shoot across the sky (often called a “shooting star“) is a very special thing to catch in the night sky. When these particles fall to the ground, we call them meteorites. Most meteorites (86%) are the rocky type, called chondrites.  These are usually about 4.5 billion years old, and represent leftover material from the formation of our solar system. For more information on meteorites, check out the meteorite hunting show, Meteorite Men on the Science Channel.

For this easy treat, just follow the directions on the back of your favorite rice cereal box. Instead of pressing the mixture into a pan, let it cool slightly and have your children form it into meteorite-shaped lumps. Be sure to butter your child’s hands first, or you’ll have a very sticky mess on your hands– literally! While making these, we discussed the many different sizes of meteorites and how fun it would be to be a “meteorite hunter”. Once these have cooled, they pack up nicely for your stargazing trip.


Lunar Phase Sandwiches

This is another very simple snack to assemble, with a great topic to discuss with your kids while you are making it– lunar phases. There are many great sites out there describing the different phases of the moon. I especially love this video, made by an elementary class for a science project. Beyond learning the names of the phases, I think that one of the most important concepts to understand in astronomy is WHY we see different phases of the moon.  This is a concept that I will cover in a later post (along with activities), but for a good introduction, try one of these on-line explanations. Be sure to stress to your kids that lunar phases are a result of different parts of the moon being lit up as it’s orbiting the earth, having NOTHING to do with the earth’s shadow on the moon.

For this snack, assemble your child’s favorite sandwich (ours are peanut butter & jelly), and then cut each out with a large cup. At this point, all of your sandwiches will be “full moons”. Next you can use the same cup to cut a few into crescent and gibbous moons, and a knife to cut a few into quarter moons. For older children, you can set the sandwiches out in order of the occurring phases, from new to full moon.

Constellation Cookies

This is a great snack to bring to a family stargazing session. Kids love making cookies, especially when they get to use their creativity to decorate them. You can decorate your cookie bars with the seasonal constellations that you will be viewing, or let your children use their imaginations and make up their own constellations.

Begin with your favorite bar cookie recipe (I like to double this one), but be sure to go very light on the amount of chocolate chips that you add into the dough. After pouring the dough into the pan and smoothing the top, use chocolate chips to design your constellation. You can do the entire sky (using a seasonal sky map), or focus on one or two of your favorite constellations. My seven year-old used our Summer Sky Map (kids version) to make Scorpius, and my four year-old made up her own constellation.

You can use this same idea with individual cookies, icing each one and then decorating it with chocolate chips or sprinkles. A healthier version would be to make a pan of granola bars and decorate with raisins, or spread rice cakes with peanut butter and decorate with blueberries.

Solar System Fruit Kebabs

For a healthy snack, gather your favorite fruit to make these delicious kebabs. Use any spherical fruit, or scoop different types of melon with a melon baller. We used green and purple grapes, watermelon and cantaloupe.

Your children can assemble them using bamboo skewers. Point out the different sizes of fruit, and discuss how different the terrestrial (Mercury, Venus, Earth & Mars) and Jovian (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus & Neptune) planets are in size. You can also decide which planets are most similar to the different fruit in color. Do you have any extra-small spheres, maybe blueberries? Those could be dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Makemake, Eris or Haumea. If you were to make the solar system to scale, the Earth would be the size of a blueberry and the Sun would be the size of the entire watermelon!

Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover) is landing soon!

The Mars Science Laboratory, better known as the Curiosity rover, will be landing on Mars on August 5th or 6th (depending on your time zone).  This is an exciting opportunity to help excite your kids about astronomy and space exploration.  Today’s post includes all of the basics about the mission.  Stay tuned for a post at the end of the month about activities to do as a family to prepare for the landing.

When?  The Curiosity rover launched on November 26th, 2011 and will be landing at approximately 1:31am EDT on August 6th, 2012.

Where?  The Curiosity rover will land in Mars’ Gale Crater, near the Martian Equator.  (Go here to see where Curiosity is RIGHT NOW!)

How?  The spacecraft not only has the tough job of traveling the distance from Earth to Mars, but also had to include the launch vehicle which propelled the craft beyond Earth’s gravity.  The spacecraft is carrying a rover that will act as a portable science laboratory on the surface of the planet.

Instead of the airbag entry that has been used in past Mars missions, the Mars Science Laboratory will use a guided entry and a sky-crane touchdown system.  This is a new and unusual way to land a rover, and I imagine that NASA scientists will be holding their breath during the critical seven minutes!  (“Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror” video, describing the entry, descent and landing)

Why?  The Curiosity rover is an advanced science laboratory on wheels.  The Mars Science Laboratory is carrying the largest, most advanced set of instruments ever sent to the Red Planet.

The mission has many things that it hopes to accomplish, and it is helping to meet four goals of the Mars Exploration Program:

  • Determine whether life ever arose on Mars.
  • Characterize the climate of Mars.
  • Characterize the geology of Mars.
  • Prepare for human exploration.

The Mars Science Laboratory represents the new age of Mars exploration.  This is an exciting event for NASA and planetary scientists around the world.  Check back on July 27th for activities to help your family learn more about the Red Planet and prepare for the landing.

Help me celebrate the launch of Lie Back, Look Up (free printable & a giveaway!)

To celebrate the official launch of Lie Back, Look Up, I am offering a free printable and a giveaway! This is a website that I’ve been dreaming about for awhile, and I’m so very excited to finally get it off the ground. I hope you all have as much fun visiting here as I do sharing my ideas.

As a “thank you” for helping me launch, I invite you to download these free constellation cards. These can be printed and enjoyed over and over again with your family. They will be available free-of-charge throughout the month of July.

The constellation cards are a great way to encourage your kids in their love of the stars. There are many uses for children (and adults!) of all ages. Here are a few ideas on how to use the cards:

  • as flashcards to learn the constellations
  • blow them up and use them as decorations in a children’s room or a nursery
  • as seating cards at a birthday party (as seen here)

You could also print two sets of the cards, using just the side with the constellation picture (leaving the backside blank) and try the following:

  • use them as a Memory game
  • play Old Maid or Go Fish
  • have your kids write their own myth for each constellation on the back

Three lucky winners will be receiving a free planisphere. A planisphere, also known as a star wheel, is a great basic tool to have for stargazing. You just have to spin the disk to match up the time and date that you are stargazing, and it will show you which constellations you should see in the night sky.

To be entered into the random drawing, just leave a comment with your email address (in the “email” field in the comment form). For an extra entry, share this post via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest (you can use one of the buttons at the bottom of this post), and let me know that you did so in a separate comment. For a third entry, subscribe to this blog and let me know in the comments as well. If you win, I’ll email you to ask for your latitude so I can make sure to get you the correct planisphere for your location.

Comments will close on this post on Friday, July 20 at 1 PM EST. Winners will be announced on Monday, July 23.

Good luck in the planisphere giveaway, enjoy the cards and don’t forget to Lie Back, Look Up!

What is a shooting star?

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see a “shooting star” in the sky, then you understand why they are the topic of so many songs and children’s rhymes.  Catching one with your eye feels like a special occurrence, maybe even a sign of good luck or good things to come.

But what exactly is a shooting star?  Is it a star falling out of the sky?  a dying star? a comet?  A shooting star is actually a particle from space colliding with the earth’s atmosphere.  We call these particles meteoroids, and they can be as small as a particle of dust or as large as a tennis ball.  As the earth travels around the sun, we run into some of these particles.  When they hit our atmosphere, they burn up and create a beautiful path in the sky, called a meteor.  The larger the particle, the more impressive the display.  If the particle does not burn up completely in our atmosphere, pieces might make it to the ground, which we call meteorites.

Several times during the year there are opportunites to see a large number of meteors during the night.  These events are called meteor showers.  This happens when the earth passes through the debris left from a comet traveling in a very elliptical orbit around the sun.  Because we know where these comets’ orbits are, we know exactly when we will be passing through their debris each year.  Stay tuned to Lie Back, Look Up for more information on viewing the Perseids meteor shower, occurring on the nights of August 11th and 12th.

Family Stargazing Activity for July– Stargazing Diary

Here at Lie Back, Look Up, you will find monthly stargazing and astronomy activities to do with your family.  Many of these activities include a free printable, as well as tutorials and videos.  Please let me know in the comments how your family has enjoyed these activities!

One important thing to remember when stargazing with children is that you need to give them something to “do”.  Many children will become bored with just looking up at the sky, so bringing along an activity is very important to keeping their attention.



A stargazing journal is an important tool for amateur and seasoned astronomers.  Establishing a record of your sky observations is a great habit to instill in children, and can also be a lot of fun.  I’ve included a link below for a Stargazing Diary to print-off and use with your kids.  As always, it’s important to model this for your children– bring along a blank notebook that you plan on using for your Stargazing Diary.

On each page there is a section for a drawing of their observations, as well as writing-prompts below each observation.  These prompts can make for great discussion on many astronomy basics.  I would make several copies of the last page to include in your child’s Stargazing Diary– it will allow for general observation time and time again.

Click the link below to download your free Stargazing Diary.

Stargazing Diary Printable

You may print our activities for your own personal, non-commercial use. Our printables may not be hosted on any other web site, blog, forum, etc.