Space Exploration

Strange New Planet


Activity training powerpoint

In this simulation of space exploration, participants plan and carry out five missions to a “planet” and communicate their discoveries to their family or a friend.

What's the Point?

  • Scientists plan space exploration missions based on previous scientific knowledge and investigations. Different kinds of investigations answer different kinds of questions.
  • Space missions are scientific investigations that involve observing and describing planets, asteroids, and moons. Sample return missions allow scientists to collect and analyze specimens.
  • Space scientists use technology, such as telescopes and robotic spacecraft, to help them make better observations. Robotic spacecraft may fly by or orbit a planet, or they may investigate the surface (landers and sample return missions).
  • Scientists and engineers often work in teams with different individuals doing different things that contribute to the results. The team members work together to gather and analyze data, and they use that data to plan future investigations.


Facility needs:

  • A (30’ x 6’ or larger) hallway or open space
  • A stool, pedestal, or stand

For the facilitator:

  • Craft and food items for constructing one or more “planets,” each constructed from:
    • 1 (4–8”) Styrofoam© ball
    • 1 (1-lb.) container of modeling clay or case of Play-Doh© in a variety of colors, to depict features
    • A selection of “planet” surface features: cotton balls or gauze, felt, toothpicks
    • “Life” (optional):  whole cloves, or small green leaves from a plant such as thyme
    • Glue or tape
    • 2–4 markers of different colors
  • 1 measuring tape
  • 1 roll of masking tape
  • 1 permanent marker

For each audience of 10-15 participants:

  • 1 or more “telescopes on Earth,” each constructed from
    • 1 cardboard or rolled paper tube
    • 1 (5” × 5”) blue cellophane square
    • 1 rubber band
  • 1 or more additional cardboard or rolled paper tubes to serve as the “telescope in space”
  • Optional:  1 set of walkie-talkies for the group to share
  • 5–7 observation sheets, printed on cardstock
  • 5–7 pencils and/or colored pencils
  • Optional:  5–7 flag stickers
  • Optional:  5–7 toothpicks for “planting” the flag


  • Create a “planet” using the craft and/or food materials. Decorate the planet with beads, stickers, sequins, candy, marbles, scents (optional), etc., to make the object interesting to observe. Some of these materials should be placed discreetly so that they are not obvious upon brief or distant inspection. Features might include:
    • Cotton-ball or gauze “clouds”
    • White patches of “ice”
    • Indented craters
    • “Rifts” cut into the surface
    • “Volcanos” or “mountains”
    • A “moon” grape attached with toothpicks
    • Cloves, small green leaves, or other signs of “life.”
Participants preparing for activity
  • Prepare a hallway or large, open area with the “planet” elevated at one end on a pedestal or stool. Leave a clear path around the “planet” for the participants to walk in a complete circle (“orbit”) around them from a distance of about 2 feet.
  • Using tape and a marker, provide labels on the floor for where observers should stand at each stage of exploration. Space the labels out so over a distance of about 20 feet (measurements are approximate):
    • Telescope on Earth (20 feet from the “planet”)
    • Telescope in Space (21 feet from the “planet”)
    • Space Probe (10 feet from the “planet”)
    • Orbiter (2 feet from the “planet”)
    • Lander (next to the “planet”)
  • Create a “mission control” area at the farthest point from the “planet” (with seating, if desired).
  • Make at least one “telescope on Earth” by attaching a blue cellophane square to one end of a paper towel tube of rolled piece of paper using a rubber band. If multiple teams will view the “planet” at the same time, make one “telescope on Earth” and one “telescope in space” for each team. (Alternatively, provide time during the activity for the participants to make their own “telescopes.”)
  • Optional:  If the walkie-talkies will be used, test them beforehand for battery strength and to set them to the clearest channel.


  1. Share ideas and knowledge.
    • Frame the activity with the main message: Exploration allows us to build new knowledge on the discoveries of others.
    • Brief participants on their mission:  to plan and carry out the exploration of a new “planet” as if they are looking through a telescope from Earth or traveling to the planet as a space probe, orbiter, lander, or sample return mission.
      • One person from each team will serve as an “observer.”
      • Remaining team members will stay at “mission control” and use the observation sheets and pencils to record what they learn from the observers at each stage of exploration.
      • Optional: Have the group take turns using the walkie-talkies to report back observations to “mission control.” Begin with a demonstration on how the walkie-talkies work.
  2. Telescope observations Guide the participants as they plan, then carry out, the following five stages of exploration. Team members will take turns being the “observer,” who will look at the “planet” from each marker and report the “planet’s” colors, shapes, and textures to mission control. Teams use this information to decide together on how best to proceed at the next stage of exploration. (Optional:  use walkie-talkies to incorporate technology into this process).  After each step, each team must have and report out scientific questions in order to continue with a new mission; NASA never sends a mission without science questions they want answered.
    1. Telescope observations:
      1. Observers look through cellophane-covered tubes to study the “planet” as it would appear from Earth-based telescopes.
      2. Observers look through tubes (without cellophane) to study the planet as it would appear from Earth orbit.
      3. Ask the participants to consider how the blue cellophane represents the Earth’s atmosphere and discuss what affect the Earth’s atmosphere would have on our ability to see details on the planet’s surface.
    2. Space probe:  Observers view the “front” side (the side they just viewed from a distance) of the “planet.”
    3. Orbiter:  Observers walk around the “planet” in a circle (orbit) at a distance of 2 feet.
    4. Lander:
      1. Each team uses their prior observations to decide where they would like to send a lander and what feature(s) they would like to examine.
      2. Observers mark their “landing site” by planting a toothpick, with a flag sticker attached, onto their chosen site. Observers then study only that spot for up to about five minutes.
      Teams decide what sample they would like to collect
    5. Optional:  Sample return mission:
      1. Each team uses their prior observations to decide what sample they would like to collect.
      2. Observers return to the “Lander” marker to collect one sample (a tiny pinch) from the “planet.” They bring the sample back to mission control for examination in a scientific laboratory.
  3. Have the participants describe what they discovered by exploring the model planet, based on their observations.


Draw on the participants’ discoveries to summarize the experience, and encourage teams to talk with each other. Prompt conversation with questions such as:

  • What did you first observe through the “telescopes”? How did the blue cellophane affect what you saw?
  • How did your understanding of the “planet” and its features change with each stage of exploration?
  • What evidence can each team provide to argue that there is — or is not — life on the “planet”?
  • How did talking to your teammates help you decide what you were seeing and what to look for during the next stage of exploration?
  • How did your drawings — your scientific understanding — change as you learned more?
  • What questions will you be able to answer based on your sample?
  • What real planet would you like to explore?

Facilitator and Background Information

One critical aspect of science education is teaching what science fundamentally is and how it is conducted.  The Nature of Science includes exploring the relationship between science and technology (see the Next Generation Science Standards below.)  The history of planetary exploration can be used to demonstrate this relationship.  As scientists make new discoveries, they form new questions.  Sometimes these questions inspire the design of new instruments.  As new technology extends our capabilities, it gathers data that often surprise us, answering questions we didn’t even know we had.

How do scientists explore planets? Telescopes on Earth and in orbit around Earth provide scientists with information about our solar system. That information is used to plan where spacecraft fly and where they “point their cameras.” NASA and other agencies send robotic spacecraft to fly by, orbit, or land on other planets and moons.  With each mission, scientists added new knowledge to our understanding of the solar system.

Only one other body in our solar system has been visited by humans — the Moon! The Apollo astronauts brought back nearly 850 pounds of lunar samples, which scientists continue to study today. Chunks of planets and asteroids sometimes land on Earth as meteorites, giving scientists the chance to study pieces of other worlds.

Some spacecraft — probes — travel very fast and don’t slow down to stay long at a planet. Orbiters circle around a planet or moon for an extended period of time. Landers land on a planet or moon to study a particular place (rovers are able to move and visit more than one place in the area).

Sample return missions are extremely expensive. Samples from the Moon collected during the Apollo missions cost $28,500 per pound! (Their value to science and society, however, could be considered much greater than their cost!)  Spacecraft have also brought samples back from a comet, an asteroid, solar wind, and low-Earth orbit.

Scientists talk to each other about what spacecraft show them, and use their observations to plan the rest of the mission — sometimes even changing where the spacecraft or lander will go next!


Adapted from Mars Activities:  Teacher Resources and Classroom Activities, a Mars Education Program product from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Arizona State University.

Planetary Exploration in Science Education. The Universe in the Classroom (2016). No. 90, Astronomical Society of the Pacific.