Mars Discovery Program: Background information

Verizon Innovative Learning explorer lab

The engineering design process is directly applicable across the middle school curriculum and can be integrated into life science, physical science, math, and earth science classes. Below we have provided some connections for teachers in each of these subjects.

The engineering design process is a series of steps that engineers follow to come up with a solution to a problem. Many times the solution involves designing a product (like a machine or computer code) that meets certain standards and/or accomplishes a certain task.

Engineers do not always follow the engineering design process steps in order, one after another. It is very common to design something, test it, find a problem, and then go back to an earlier step to make a modification or change to your design. This way of working is called iteration, and it is likely that your rover design process will do the same.


During the Mars Destination mission, you will remotely drive a rover over the Martian surface and be presented with different challenges to complete. To progress through the game, you will have to identify what challenges your rover faces and overcome them in order to move on to the next level. You will face a many different types of challenges throughout the game, including how to design a rover to maneuver over different terrains (i.e. sand, rocks, or boulders) and how to best collect evidence of water and life on Mars.


To overcome the different obstacles you face, you will have to consider different solutions for them. You may have to come up with alternative wheel designs or take a different route in order to cross the Martian surface and achieve your goal. You will have to identify the limitations of your solutions such as limited battery power or the type of obstacles on the Martian surface. There might be multiple solutions to a problem and you will have to consider the pros and cons of each before you choose which solution to try.


After you choose a design, you will have to test it on the Martian surface. As you drive your rover, will it be able to get over large boulders? Will the battery last the whole trek? Was your rover able to complete the required task and collect different samples? These are the types of questions you will have to answer as you test your rover. Some of your designs may fail at first, when this happens stop and think about why the design did not work and decide how to re-design and optimize your rover to be able to complete the task. You will be able to work through the engineering loop until you are able to find the best solution to your problem.


An engineer is person who uses scientific information to solve real world problems. An engineer can design and build products, machines, and structures. They use a systematic design process to create solutions to solve problems and to figure out how things work.


Engineers use a design process to solve problems.

First, they must identify a problemthat needs a solution. This problem could be how to build a bridge over a large body of water or how to better design a cell phone for better reception.

The second step in engineering is to identify the criteria and constraints of possible solutions. The criteria could be how long a bridge must be and how much weight it must carry.  A constraint can be lack of technology or types of materials that can be used. Besides physical constraints, engineers must also consider social constraints like budgets and effects on the environment. The next step of the process is to develop possible solutions. There is never one solution to a problem and engineers will brainstorm different possibilities will take the best parts of different solutions before choosing a solution.

The fourth step is to test their solution and optimize. By testing their solutions, engineers can evaluate the parts of their solution that worked and the things that might have gone wrong. They will use this information to go back and optimize and improve their solution. This solution can now be tested again to see if it solves the original problem. Engineers continue to test and optimize their designs until they find an optimal solution. This is called the engineering loop.


Engineers come in many types and are part of many different fields. While some engineers may concentrate on one field, many of their projects tend to be interdisciplinary, combining elements of many different disciplines. There are six main groups of engineers.

Mechanical engineers design and analyze things that involve heat and mechanical power for the operations of machines. This can be designing new types of cars or developing new types of equipment for sports teams.

Chemical engineers apply chemistry and biology to creating new materials like creating synthetic proteins to help design medications or design new types of plastics that are biodegradable.

Civil engineers design and construct physical environments like bridges that withstand earthquakes or ways to provide cities with drinking water.

Electrical engineers apply the science of electricity and electromagnetism in designing products. Many computer engineers are electrical engineers designing hardware and the inner workings of computers and cell phones.

Software engineers design, model, and maintain software systems. These can be on the small scale like designing a word processor or on a larger scale like cybersecurity.

Systems engineers coordinate and designs solutions to running complex systems. This field incorporates the cooperation and collaboration of people in many different disciplines and logistics of projects. Many system engineers work in management positions organizing large projects.


From designing space suits, building rovers, and creating software, there is a place for all types of engineers in space exploration. It is the collaboration between engineers in different fields that allows NASA to put rovers on Mars and astronauts in space. Aerospace engineers are needed to know the best ways of making a rocket fly and what materials to use. Chemical engineers design new materials that can withstand the different environments of space like high radiation. Computer engineers design and run the programs to keep contact with rovers and space crafts from here on Earth.  Biological engineers develop new technologies to allow for humans to survive on other planets. Even engineers in agriculture are needed to create ways of growing plants in space. There is a place for all engineers in space exploration.


A rover is a robotic vehicle that can travel the surface of a planet or another type of celestial body. Rovers are designed to learn about other planets by collecting samples like dust and rocks, taking pictures, and analyzing atmospheric conditions. This information is sent back to Earth where scientists use it to learn more about Mars and the nature of the solar system. Rovers are not entirely on their own. Scientists can reprogram the rover’s computers from Earth to help overcome different challenges the rovers might experience on Mars. Rovers can provide information about Mars that orbiting satellites can’t like what chemicals make up the types of rocks on Mars. This can not only give information


Rovers are built like other robots. They have their own computers that can either make decisions based on information programmed inside, by learning, or by receiving information from scientists here on Earth. They all share some basic structures: a body containing the computer and the other vital equipment, different tools to sense their environment, and wheels or legs for movement on the surface.

They all need a source of energy to move and perform experiments. Earlier rovers depended heavily on solar panels and harnessing energy from the sun. On Spirit and Opportunity, they could move their solar panels to optimize how much sun light they could receive. These two rovers also had batteries to help keep the rovers active during the Mars winter. The Curiosity rover is much bigger and contains much more scientific equipment than previous rovers. Therefore, solar energy would not meet its needs. Instead, Curiosity runs on radioisotope power using plutonium-238. This provides Curiosity with more power to move further, do more science, and heat the rover over a longer period of time. It is also smaller in size and minimizes weight for the rover.

An essential part of the rovers’ job is to communicate with Earth. Rovers send signals through radio waves. The radio waves are at a much higher frequency than waves we use for our radios. The rovers can communicate through their antennas either with orbiters flying by or directly with Earth. In fact, they can turn their antennas to direct the beam of radio waves at specific antenna on Earth so that the they do not have to turn around to send signals. Scientists prefer to have the information sent to the orbiters first because it only takes about 8 minutes for 250 megabits (31MB) of data to be sent compared to the 20 hours it would take to be sent to Earth.


It is very difficult to send humans to Mars. It can take anywhere between six months to a year just to get to Mars and scientists are still working on ways of ensuring that the astronauts would not only have enough fuel for the way back but also the resources like water, food, and oxygen, to survive. As of now, it would be too heavy to launch a rocket with all the necessary supplies. Additionally, there are many hazards to humans on Mars like the high levels of radiation, dust, and poor atmospheric conditions. One goal for the rovers is to analyze the conditions of Mars to better understand the technologies we need to design for human arrival.

Scientists are also planning on using rovers to start building the infrastructure needed for humans to land on Mars. This way future expeditions do not need to be weighed down by extra supplies and the astronauts will have shelter, and possibly water, waiting for them when they arrive.


As of 2016, there have been four rovers on Mars.


The first rover, Sojourner, landed on Mars in 1997. It was named after civil rights crusader Sojourner Truth. Sojourner was about the size of a microwave and its main goal was to look for signs of water. It explored an area called Ares Vallis which from satellite images looked like an area where water once flowed and was a nice flat place for Sojourner to land. Sojourner had different tools to study Mars. It had cameras to take pictures in black and white to study the Martian landscape. It also had a machine called a spectrometer which could analyze the types of elements found in rocks and dust.

Spirit and Opportunity The Mars Exploration Rovers

Spirit and Opportunity arrived on Mars in 2004. These twin rovers were much bigger than Sojourner, about the size of a golf cart. They were sent to two different landing sites that might have contained water and potentially could have supported life. They carried an array of scientific equipment. Working with what they learned from Sojourner, they equipped the rovers with three types of spectrometers as well as different types of cameras for panoramic photos as well as close-ups. They also added a rock abrasion tool that acts as a rock hammer allowing the rovers to examine fresh materials underneath the surface of dust.

Spirit landed in a region called Gusev Crater and took the first color photographs of Mars. It also found signs of past water as well as evidence of volcanic activity. Opportunity landed in the flat area known as Meridiani Planum. One major discovery of Opportunity was finding the mineral hematite. On Earth, hematite is found in places that have standing water or hot springs. Overall, Opportunity’s data suggested that Mars may have had a salty sea in its history. The goal of each rover was to drive about three-quarters of a mile but both rovers succeeded beyond that goal using good engineering design. They were designed with strong materials to handle the terrain of Mars as well as the rapid temperature changes. These rovers also had a “rocker-bogie” suspension allowing the rovers to tilt 45 degrees without falling over. They had heaters to keep equipment working at temperatures below 150 degrees Fahrenheit and when the rovers met terrain they could not overcome, they were able to drive backwards and choose a new route. These designs allowed the Spirit rover to drive 4.8 miles and provide scientific data for over 5 years. The Opportunity rover is still traveling on Mars after 13 years. It continues to send new data and has traveled over 26 miles.

Curiosity The Mars Space Laboratory

The Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012. The mission of Curiosity was not only to look for signs of water but also to look for the carbon-containing compounds called organic molecules. These are the basic building blocks of life here on Earth.  Curiosity was built larger than the other three rovers. It is the size of a small SUV. This allows Curiosity to have much larger wheels that help it roll over rocks and sand. Curiosity landed in the Gale Crater, which contains a mountain. This mountain is composed of many different layers of rocks from different time periods in Mars’ history allowing scientists to learn more about how Mars was formed.

Its big size also allows Curiosity to have an array of scientific instruments. It contains a laser for vaporizing rock to analyze its composition.  It can detect different elements in rock as well as gases using a gas chromatograph. It has a drill to make holes in rocks to analyze deeper layers than the previous rovers. Curiosity also measure things like radiation and found out that the radiation on Mars is much higher than expected. This will help NASA design better protection for humans on future missions. There are 17 cameras on Curiosity taking pictures of the journey but also in helping to discover dangerous locations the rover should avoid. One camera can even be used to take pictures of itself. A rover selfie!


There is a new rover being developed for launch in 2020. The mission of this rover is to look for direct signs of life. It will be similar in size to the Curiosity rover but will have different instruments at its disposal. The second goal of this rover is to perform experiments for planning a human mission to Mars. The atmosphere on Mars is mostly made of carbon dioxide, meaning there isn’t much oxygen for humans to breathe. Therefore, we would need to bring much more oxygen to survive than could be carried on a spacecraft. The 2020 rover is going to test different methods to isolate oxygen from the atmosphere to create enough oxygen for human exploration.


The rovers during the explorer labexperience are equipped similarly to the Mars Curiosity rover. A description of the Curiosity rover is below to provide background information on its parts and instruments.

Launched:  November 26, 2011

Landed: August 5, 2012

Curiosity Specifications

Size: 10 feet long, 9 feet wide, 7 feet tall

Arm reach: ~7 feet

Weight: 2,000 pounds (900 kg)

Body: warm electronics box or “WEB” – protects the computer and electronics, temperature controlled

Brains: Computer controlling the movements, instruments, and daily processes of the rover.

Eyes: 17 total cameras: 6 pairs of cameras for navigation, 4 cameras for scientific investigations, 1 camera for landing observations

Wheels: 6 wheels with a “rocker-bogie” suspension allowing the rover to keep balance over rocky terrain. It can withstand tilting up to 45 degrees. Two front and two rear wheels are used for steering. The rover has a top speed of 1.5 inches per second (4 cm per second).

Robotic Arm: Maneuvers instruments to get close to rocks and soil. Contains 3 joints to extend and bend at different angles. At the end of the arm is a “hand” that has 5 devices mounted. These devices are used for drilling, imaging, and spectrometry.

Energy: Powered by radioactive decay of plutonium

Antennas: 3 antennas that send radio waves at ultra-high frequencies. They also used to receive information back from earth with new commands.

Curiosity Instruments

Mast Camera – Camera that takes color images and video to study the Mars surface and help in navigation

Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – take close up views of minerals and structures in rocks, has a white light source and a UV light source to detect different types of minerals

Mars Descent Imager – took video of the rover’s descent to provide an “astronaut’s view” of the environment and for ensuring a safe landing

Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) – measures the abundance of different elements in rocks and soil using X-rays

Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) – uses a laser to vaporize rocks and soil and measures the composition of the resulting plasma (really hot, high energy gas with free ions).  Can determine what types of rock are being studied (volcanic, sedimentary, etc.)

Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction (CheMin) – uses X-rays to analyze drilled rocks to look for minerals. Scientists are looking particularly for minerals that require water to form.

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite– designed to look for the presence of elements associated with life including carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Contains three main instruments: mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and laser spectrometer

Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) – sent specifically to prepare for human exploration, it measures high-energy radiation on the Martian surface to allow scientists to calculate how much radiation humans would be exposed to on the surface.

Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) – measures the speed at which neutrons escape into space to look for the presence of hydrogen. Hydrogen atoms can slow neutrons down, so they will have less energy when measured by the detector.

Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) – weather monitoring station that reports on atmospheric pressure, humidity, ultraviolet radiation, wind speed, air temperature and ground temperature.

Mars Science Laboratory Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) – atmospheric sensor that collected data from the rover’s descent. It measured how hot the spacecraft got during entry and the amount of pressure exerted on the spacecraft. This will be essential for designing spacecraft for future missions.


Scientists at NASA study other planets because they can tell us a lot about how the solar system was formed and how our own planet Earth came to exist. Due to its proximity to Earth and the similarities between the two planets, Mars is an ideal planet for NASA scientists to study. Like Earth, Mars has polar ice caps, clouds in its atmosphere, seasonal weather, volcanoes, canyons, and other recognizable features. However, as scientists have studied Mars throughout the years they have found out that conditions on Mars can be very different from here on Earth. Why Mars and Earth took such different paths is a question scientists are trying to answer.

The major question scientists are trying to answer by studying Mars is if life exists or ever existed on the red planet. Through the Mars missions, scientists found evidence indicating the presence of water and, here on Earth, the presence of water is a very good indicator of life. The Mars missions began with the strategy to “Follow the Water” and many of the satellites and rovers were designed for this specific goal. The current missions like the Curiosity rover are to “Seek Signs of Life”, and are designed with different instruments that can look for organic molecules; the building blocks of life. During these missions, it is also a goal for scientists to prepare Mars for human exploration. Learning about the environment of Mars will better prepare us for traveling there and possible human habitation.

Past Mars Missions:

Viking Missions

Mars Pathfinder

Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2


Current Mars Missions:         

Mars Exploration Rovers-  Spirit and Opportunity

Mars Science Laboratory- Curiosity Rover

Top Science Discoveries of Curiosity Rover


Future Mars Missions:

Insight – Launching May 2018!

2020 Mission Plans


Curiosity Rover

Twitter: @MarsCuriosity



Spirit and Opportunity Rovers

Twitter: @MarsRovers




Twitter: @NASA

GRADE LEVEL  Grades 6, 7, and 8

FOCUS Engineering, solar system, and human space exploration

TIME 30-60 minutes

MS-ETS1  Engineering Design

Additional classroom connections + activities
For earth, life and physical science teachers

Background information
Background information & FAQs for students

Requesting a visit

The explorer lab will serve District of Columbia Public Schools middle schools in 2017/18 our pilot year. We hope to serve more than 5,000 DC students during the program’s first year.

DCPS middle school teachers who attend one of our Mars Discovery Program professional development workshops in August may request to have the explorer lab come to their school during their session.