Education and
Public Engagement
at the Lunar and Planetary Institute
Explore! Life on Mars

Mars from Above: Mars Match

Adapted from Astrobiology:  Science Learning Activities for Afterschool Educator Resource Guide. Walker, Education Department of the American Museum of Natural History; and Setting the Scene, Scratching the Surface unit of Explore! Mars:  Inside and Out, Lunar and Planetary Institute, 2007.


Mars Match, a 15-minute activity for children ages 8–13, engages children in an exploration of Mars’ surface features by comparing and contrasting them with surface features on Earth. The children form teams of “planetary investigators” to examine images of volcanos, channels, and craters on Earth and Mars. The teams then use what they’ve learned to match the appropriate Mars feature cards to their Earth counterparts. The teams conclude by considering how scientists view these features from space, and what that may mean for our search for life beyond Earth.

What's the Point?

Tips for Engaging Girls in STEM:

  • Use group work and collaboration to help engage children. Girls benefit from collaboration, especially when they can participate and communicate fairly. Girls are energized by the social part of science, working and learning together. This activity gives the children the opportunity to collaborate and work together in a fun and engaging social environment.
  • Encourage critical thinking. Girls gain confidence and trust in their own reasoning when encouraged to think critically. This activity provides an opportunity for children to use imagery to think critically about what it is like on Mars (what we can observe) and what that can tell us about its past and potential to support life — now or in the past.


For each team of 3–4 children:

Earth Image Placemats (large file, 23 MB)
Earth Image Placemats (small file, 3 MB)

For each child:

For the facilitator:



1. Distribute a pencil to each child and the optional Extreme-O-File:  Mars from Above activity pages (if needed), and invite them to become planetary investigators! The planets they will investigate are Mars and Earth. They will begin their investigation by making observations and asking questions, sorting the geologic features from Mars into groups, and sharing their observations with the whole group.

2. Team Up! Divide the children into teams of 3–4 children each. Give each team a set of Mars Cards. Explain to them how the images were taken so that they understand that they are looking down on these features from space — just like the orbiting spacecraft that took the images! Make sure to point out that some cards have a Sun-shaped symbol to indicate the direction of the sunlight. They should think about where they see shadows in relation to the direction of sunlight to help interpret the images.

Facilitator’s Note: If the children have difficulty understanding the perspective of the images, you can use the bowl and flashlight to help make sure that they understand the perspective from which the images were taken. 

(1) Flip the bowl upside down and place it on a surface. Invite the children to look at the bowl from the side. Does it look like a hill or mountain from this viewing angle?

(2) Next, invite the children to look at the bowl or hill from above. They are now looking at the bowl much the same way that the spacecraft looked at Mars when taking images.


How does the “hill” look to the children now? Is it different than viewing from the surface? Yes! Looking down on features, it is not easy to tell what is sticking up from the surface, like a hill/mountain, versus what is dipping in below the surface, like a crater/hole. By using the flashlight to simulate sunlight hitting the bowl (our geologic feature), we can observe where shadows occur. This can help us to determine the relief of the topography — whether it is sticking up or dipping below the surface. Notice for features sticking above the surface, like a hill/mountain, the shadow lies outside the feature, opposite the direction of the sunlight. For holes or depressions in a surface, the shadow will lie inside the feature, opposite the direction of sunlight.

3. Invite each team to examine their Mars Cards images and sort/organize them by the types of features they observe.
They should try to create 3–5 groups.

Facilitator’s Note:  If the children have difficulty distinguishing between volcanos and craters in the images, ask them to observe where the shadows fall. Craters are circular depressions in the ground. If the sunlight is striking the crater at an angle in the image, the “bowl” will have a shadow “inside” the circular feature. Volcanos are mountains above the landscape, and they often cast shadows on the ground “outside” the circular feature. You can illustrate this by moving the beam of a flashlight across a bowl when it is placed right-side-up on a surface (crater) compared to turning the bowl upside down on the surface (volcano) and repeating the sweep of the flashlight beam. Have the children imagine that the flashlight beam is the sunlight and ask them to look for where the shadows occur for the crater (upright bowl) compared to where the shadows occur for the mountain (inverted bowl).

4. Briefly discuss the observations and summarize the group findings.

5. Challenge the teams to apply what they’ve learned by playing Mars Match. Give each team a set of Earth Image Placemats. Each team should work together to match each Mars Card to one Earth Image Placemat, placing the card in the shaded box on the placemat. They should continue until each card has been matched and placed onto a corresponding Earth feature. Once completed, the team should read about the Earth features and how they form, and discuss what that may mean for the matching Mars features. Note: Some of the Earth images also have a Sun icon indicating the direction from which the Sun is shining (as appropriate).

6. Invite each team to compare and contrast the features they observed. 

Facilitator’s Note:  Mars has fewer volcanos than Earth, but they are much larger. Mars has many more craters than Earth.  Mars does not have liquid water on its surface today, but features that look like stream channels on its surface, similar to those seen on Earth, suggest it had flowing water in the past.

In Conclusion

Summarize that Mars and Earth have been shaped by similar processes, and that we can find volcanos, stream channels, and impact craters on both planets. Encourage the children to take part in the other Mars from Above activities (stations) to discover more about how these features formed, how we view them from space, and what that may mean for our search for life beyond Earth.