Classroom Activities

Activity: Mission Impossible! Are We Alone in the Universe, or Are We Just One of It's Citizens?

Instructional Objectives
Background Information
Time Needed for Activity
Target Grade Level
Web Resources

Instructional Objectives:

Students will -

  1. learn about the NASA strategy for scientifically studying any celestial body;
  2. propose an expedition plan to become space explorers of the future.

Background Information:

Are there other solar systems like ours? If there are, then conditions to sustain life may exist elsewhere. It was recently reported at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston that new close-up images of Jupiter's moon Europa reveal that large blocks of ice on the moon have moved and rotated. This suggests to scientist Robert T. Pappalardo of Brown University in Providence, RI, that an ocean may have existed in the past and may still exist as a subsurface ocean. On Earth, abundant life has been discovered near hydrothermal vents deep on the ocean floor. Perhaps, subocean volcanic vents exist on Europa, and biological life may exist there also. Scientists have long wondered if there is life, or once was life, on Mars. These are some of the questions that scientists are studying in our own solar system.

To conduct their scientific investigations, NASA has a strategy that requires three phases of exploration: reconnaissance, surveillance, and in-depth study.

  1. Reconnaissance means to observe an object intently for a short period of time using a flyby mission. A spacecraft makes one pass by a planet, radios back its data, and continues on into space.

  2. Surveillance means to observe an object intently for a long period of time using an orbiting spacecraft. The spacecraft will point its instruments at the planet and record volcanic, geological, or atmospheric activity. Orbiters usually orbit in a north-south axis over the planet's poles so that it can view a different piece of the planet with each rotation.

  3. In-depth study is the final phase of data gathering, when you, or your robots, land on the planet and explore a small area in great detail, like the Apollo missions to the moon or the Viking missions to Mars. (Source: "Biology of Europa," Science News, April 5, 1997, Vol.151:14, and NASA Educational Brief, EB-112, "The Exploration of Mars", 5/93.)

Time Needed for Activity:

Two 50-minute periods or one double-block period to design team expeditions and present proposals to the class for discussion.

Target Grade Level:

High school (Extensions for middle school and independent student work are provided below.)



  1. Divide the class into groups of four students. Have the students brainstorm about all the previous space explorations and missions that they know about. (If time, students can gather information from NASA Web site data.) Have the students record the mission destination, the scientific goal of the mission, the hazards, and what was learned from the expedition.

  2. Discuss with the students the missions of exploration that are currently being planned by the United States and the scientific goals that are being proposed.

  3. Then provide students with the following activity.

    A deep-space probe, sent out by NASA, has sent back some very interesting data to mission control. Scientists have discovered a star that is wobbling in a solar system on the far side of our galaxy. The wobble is caused by the pull of a planet orbiting around the star. With new space-flight technology, an expedition has been proposed for the year 200l. Your team has been asked to submit a three-phase expedition proposal. To prepare your team plan, design each of the following six project steps.

    Each member of the team will assume one the following roles. Mission scientists look at existing data and determine what observations should be made; mission planners name the mission and decide what set of spacecraft will be needed for each phase of the mission; mission controllers decide on the order of the flights, the launch site and the way that data will be returned from space; and spacecraft personnel decide on launch operations, timeline, and how data will be collected and returned to mission scientists.

    Step 1. As a group, decide on the scientific goal of your team.

    Step 2. Design a reconnaissance mission. What questions does your group wish to have answered about the planet? What data will specifically be collected about the charateristics of the planet, its surface, and its atmosphere?

    Step 3. With the results of the reconnaissance mission, design a surveillance mission to investigate ongoing planetary activity.

    Step 4. With your scientific goal(s) in mind, describe the in-depth study your team would make. Would the mission be manned or robotic? Because in-depth study missions can only explore small areas, site selection is an important part of your proposal. Data from previous missions must be analyzed to select the safest and most productive scientific location to land. Where will you land? Why? What do you expect to learn and why is it important?

    Step 5. Design a mission patch that reflects your team goals and mission experiments.

    Step 6. Each group will formally present its mission proposal to the rest of the class, who should be invited to make recommendations for improvements. After each group has presented, display the mission patches in the room or in some other display area.

    Evaluation/Assessment: Students will summarize the scientific goals of the other teams in their notebooks and write a three-minute reflection about what they have learned and about what they still don't know about space exploration. End the reflection piece by describing what studies and missions each student thinks should be conducted in the future.


    Web Resources: