Saturday, March 23, 2019

Life on Mars?

This week in Science Club was all about Mars. Next week we will conclude our trips to the planets (visiting Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn), and then we will move on to the constellations. After learning about stars and other heavenly bodies, we will end the year with the Periodic Table of the Elements. This is by student request, so it is always subject to change if their interests shift.

We have been following a structure for our planetary visits, but this one went a bit deeper because I had so many materials available on the topic of Mars. After all, it is a planet we have a lot of information on! It's also a planet which is often touted as an option for both extra-terrestrial life and future human habitation, so I felt it warranted a deeper look. Here is what we did:

First, we "blasted off" and arrived on Mars, and I welcomed the class as their intergalactic tour guide.

I read them the planet poem from Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars by Douglas Florian.

I read them the information on the origins of the planet's name from Kingdom of the Sun: A Book of the Planets by Jacqueline Mitton. We also learned the origins of the names of the two moons of Mars, which are Phobos and Deimos. These are the Greek words for Fear and Terror. Phobos and Deimos were the two horses which pulled the chariot of the god of war!

We divided up our various classroom resources and looked through them to find interesting facts about the planet which we wanted to share. We used The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Space & Space Exploration: Discovering the Secrets of the Universe as well as the cards for Mars, Phobos, and Deimos in The Photographic Deck of the Solar System.

We read two books titled Life on Mars. The first Life on Mars book was fiction and gently humorous.

The second Life on Mars book was nonfiction and had interesting pictures of the different equipment we've sent to Mars (successfully).

There were many pictures of, and pictures taken from, various robot spacecraft as well as rovers:

    Mariner 4 (1964) on page 13
    Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 (1969) on page 13
    Mariner 9 (1971) on page 13
    Viking 1 and Viking 2 (1976) on page 15
    Spirit and Opportunity (2004) on pages 18-19
    Phoenix (2008) on page 23
    Curiosity (2012) on page 25

This book was a wonderful follow up to our previous session, with special guest Dr. Scott Hamilton-Brehm, who spoke with us in depth about microbes.

As an early reader, the book summarized a lot of information in an easy-to-understand way. Life on Mars was also interesting because it was written in 2016 and spoke in its final pages about ExoMars: "ExoMars is a new mission to Mars. 'Exo' is short for 'exobiology,' which is the study of alien life. An ExoMars rover will look underground for signs of life, below the reach of dangerous sun rays. The rover will drill down more than six feet. Maybe life is safe there. The rover is scheduled to leave for Mars in 2018."

Immediately upon finishing that book, I was able to show the class two newspaper articles which I clipped from the paper back in November 2018. The spacecraft, named InSight, was in all the papers then!

    Mars revisited: NASA spacecraft days away from risky landing
    Wednesday, November 21, 2018

    Landing was 'flawless': InSight will conduct geological experiments, test planet's 'wobble'
    Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The articles explain that InSight is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. It was NASA's eighth successful landing at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes. (The international success rate for all Mars-bound spacecraft is just 40%.) The articles also said that the Curiosity rover is still on the move on the surface of Mars.

According to, the Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth after a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After over a thousand failed tries, NASA has decided to stop communication attempts with the rover. You can go to and click on up-to-date information on InSight as well as all the current, past, and future Mars projects. NASA will send the next Mars rover in 2020.

We were nearly ready to go to our Mars art project, but first I wanted to share two persuasive essays about life on Mars from the book of essays Breakfast on Mars and 37 Other Delectable Essays: Your Favorite Authors Take A Stab at the Dreaded Essay Assignment. This is a book I just got for Becca, who is in eighth grade. It is hilarious. Famous authors were given standard elementary and middle school essay prompts. Given the chance to respond to them, they were able to take boring prompts and turn them into interesting and well-crafted writing. They are great fun to read and it is nice to have good examples of essays to look at when you are teaching writing!

Children's book writer Chris Higgins was given the following essay prompt:

    Persuasive Essay
    Make an argument in favor of something you care about. Then make a convincing counterargument addressing that same topic.

He wrote, and we read

    Breakfast on Mars: Why We Should Colonize the Red Planet
    (Part 1, Argument)

    Robots Only: Why We Shouldn't Colonize Mars
    (Part 2, Counterargument)

We debated which essay we found the most convincing. The class settled on the group decision that we should not try to colonize Mars and should instead try to take better care of our own planet.

We went to the art room and drew an illustration of the planet using chalk pastels, so that our Mars art would have the appropriately dusty look.

And, lastly, we calculated the scale (distance from the planet to our Sun in km / 162,500,000) and then measured and placed the planet card at the appropriate spot along the Solar System String. The distance from Mars to the Sun, by our scale, was exactly 1 meter and 40 centimeters. So, if you are familiar with my home, Mars is near the clock by the front door.

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