Lunar and Planetary Institute






Live Tonight: The Planets!
EXPLORE! Life on Mars

Live Tonight: The Planets!

Overview

This activity encourages children, ages 7 and up, and their families go outside on a clear evening to view the planets and other celestial bodies for themselves. Using sky charts and other resources, and possibly in partnership with a local astronomical society or club, children and their families view Mars with binoculars and/or telescopes. Depending on what works best for your library, this outdoor night viewing can be combined with highlights of past activities from the module, having the audience undertake some of the activities, and hosting a presentation by an astrobiologist or Mars scientist. The children who have participated in the other Explore:  Life on Mars? activities may serve as docents at this public, community event, sharing what they have done and learned about what life is, the requirements for life, and the possibility for life on Mars now — or in the past!

It is recommended that the viewing event be paired with the hands-on experiment within the Searching for Life activity if space and time allow. “Soil” samples and materials should be supplied, one for each child. Please follow the procedures/instructions located within the Searching for Life activity for testing the three soil samples. This activity may be set up as a station within the library.

What’s the Point?

  • We can see Mars in the night sky with our eyes, and in even more detail with binoculars and telescopes; Mars has been the object of investigation in this module of activities. 
  • Children can share their projects and what they’ve learned over the course of the program with their families and the community.
  • Planets and even some of their moons can be seen through binoculars or a telescope.
  • Telescopes are scientific tools, which astronomers in the past used to observe features on Mars and other planetary bodies in the solar system.
  • Our understanding of planets and moons improves as more is learned with telescopes, spacecraft, landers, and rovers.

Materials

For each group of approximately 20 visitors:

  • 1 telescope monitored by an amateur astronomer
    • 1 or more small stepstools for children to stand on to reach high telescope eyepieces
  • optional:  1 pair of binoculars
    • optional:  1 camera tripod and binocular adapter (adapters are available through discount retailers)
  • tables set up indoors or outside, in a well-lit area and out of the path of traffic
  • art supplies such as colored pencils, crayons, and markers
  • books and other resources about Mars, space exploration, life in the solar system, extremophiles (possible selections are listed in the module resources)

For each child:

For the facilitator(s):

  • background information
  • shopping list
  • Appendix A:  Throw a Star Party
  • flashlights for staff, preferably with red plastic wrap or red paper taped over the light
  • optional:  access to electricity for telescopes and a well-marked extension cord, secured so that it won’t be a hazard in the dark
  • glow sticks to mark cords
  • access to drinking water
  • access to bathrooms
  • optional:  Explore: Life on Mars? activity projects (stories, rovers, garden, etc.) to share with the community

Preparation

  • Get in touch with your local astronomical society. Local clubs can be found listed through Sky & Telescope, as well as other sites on the Internet.
  • If possible, invite a local astronomer, astrobiologist, planetary scientist, or NASA Solar System Ambassador to give a presentation or lead an activity.
  • Suggested online resources for connecting with scientists and female role models in your area:
  • Plan your event using the Appendix A:  Throw a Star Party! tips. The best time to view Mars is when the planet is at least 30° above the horizon and in opposition with Earth. Your local astronomical society can help determine the best time for your location, if needed.
  • Set out the stepstool(s) where needed.
  • If you are also featuring some or all of the previous module projects — or activities for the visitors to undertake — provide additional space for these activities and signs directing visitors to their locations.

Facilitator’s Note:  Because of Mars’ small size and great distance, many of its features are not recognizable from average telescopes on Earth. Visitors may be able to see ice caps on the north or south pole, but they will not see the detail that is available in the close-up photos from the recent NASA missions. 

Activity

1. Invite the children and their families to line up in front of the different telescopes.

  • Ask each child to put his hands behind their back when it’s their turn to look through the telescope (this will reduce the chances of moving the telescope).
  • As the families line up, point out where the planets are in the sky, and which one they will see through the telescope. Ask the children to share what they know about the object before they view it.

2. Ask the children to describe what they see:

  • What color was the planet? Mars is red.
  • Invite the children to discuss what they saw; did any of them see any markings or features on the planet? 
  • How did the planet compare with stars through the telescope? The planet should be brighter than the stars in the same field of view, and look like a disk.

3. Discuss how telescopic views can be misleading:

  • Share that people have been trying to see features on the planets, using telescopes, for hundreds of years — ever since Galileo first observed the night sky with a telescope. Ask how some of these scientists might have made mistakes. Sometimes it’s easy to see things that aren’t really there (optical illusions), or that might be scratches on the lens or mirror. Sometimes the objects cannot be seen very clearly, so scientists interpret what they see based on what they know.
  • Share that one astronomer, named Giovanni Schiaparelli, thought he saw lines on Mars. He drew detailed maps with these lines, which he called “canali,” which is Italian for “channels.” But some Americans thought that he meant something else.
    • What did they think he was calling those lines on Mars? Canals. 
    • Are canals natural, or manmade? Manmade. 
  • So these people spent many years looking for and making maps of what they thought were canals on Mars. If Mars really did have canals, it must have had aliens making them. There were stories about martians for many years, up until we started sending missions to take better pictures of Mars.
  • How can scientists learn more about the planets? By viewing them with larger telescopes, especially those above our atmosphere (like the Hubble Space Telescope); by sending spacecraft to fly by or orbit them; and by sending missions like rovers to land on them.

Note:  If your event is featuring the children’s Mars Engineering projects, direct the viewers to visit the children’s work.

Facilitator’s Note:  Provide some information about NASA’s current robotic explorations: Mars is orbited by Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and is being studied by the Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, as well as the newest rover, Curiosity (with the Mars Science Laboratory onboard), which landed successfully and began exploring Mars in August 2012 .

4. Share that we have learned a lot about Mars by using telescopes and exploring it with missions. We now know that Mars has one of the most important ingredients for life—water!!  

  1. Ask the children whether they saw any evidence for frozen water on Mars. If they saw an ice cap, they saw a combination of frozen water and dry ice.
  2. If you are featuring the Mars from Above: Carving Channels activity, direct visitors to that area to learn more about past water on Mars.

In Conclusion

Thank the visitors for coming and invite them to explore any other activities that are being conducted or featured. Encourage them to check out the library resources to further explore life on Mars!