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.

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