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Probes, Exploration & Application Lesson Plan

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Lesson Plan #:AELP-SPA003
Submitted by: Jan Mader, Great Falls, MT
Endorsed by: These lesson plans are the result of the work of the teachers who have attended the Columbia Education Center’s Summer Workshop. CEC is a consortium of teacher from 14 western states dedicated to improving the quality of education in the rural, western, United States, and particularly the quality of math and science Education. CEC uses Big Sky Telegraph as the hub of their telecommunications network that allows the participating teachers to stay in contact with their trainers and peers that they have met at the Workshops.
Date: May 1994

Grade Level(s): 8, 9, 10, 11, 12


  • Science/Space Sciences

This lesson incorporates the learning cycle format with space science material. The lesson examines some of the benefits of the space program to our life on Earth. This lesson consists of an exploratory lab, concept development questions and STS application lab to reinforce the concept of radar mapping and probes.

TITLE: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Exploration)

PURPOSE: How can a surface be described without seeing it?


1. Playdough
2. Box template or a video tape box with a cover with 16 holes 1cm apart
3. Straw and millimeter measure
4. Graph paper
5. Tape


  • Construct your box, measuring straw and planetary surface as per teacher instructions.
  • When your box is completed, exchange with another person.
  • Using your millimeter probe, map the unseen surface, recording position and depth in a data table.
  • Plot your data on the graph paper and then compare the map with the actual surface.
  • Summary:

  • Did your map accurately compare with the actual surface? Account for any discrepancies.
  • How could you make the map more accurate?

  • What is the name given to the process of imaging a surface without actually touching the surface. Most students have heard or been exposed to a radar system. Some may mention sonar.
  • How does a radar or sonar system work? A radar system sends radio waves at the speed of light (3 x 108 m/s) toward an object. The waves will bounce back from the object and distances can be calculated. Sonar uses sound waves that travel slower, but does essentially the same thing.
  • Show a relief map of Earth. What do the colors show – various elevations, vegetation, weather etc. How are maps like this created? Through actual surveying or through the use of satellite imaging. How can we create this type of map for a planet on which we have never landed? It is enough just to take pictures of the surface. What if the surface is obscured, as Venus is by thick clouds? See NASA Magellan material.


    How are probes designed to map planets? What precautions do developers take?


    You will need to order the Magellan Fact sheets from a NASA resource center, and borrow the NASA video series on MARS or Voyager.he manned space missions may have received more public attention over the years, NASA has also managed many exciting and successful unmanned exploratory flights: the Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon; the Mariner missions that explored Mars, Venus, and Mercury; the Viking Mars Orbiters; the Pioneer voyages to Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune; and the Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Beginning in 1989, NASA embarked on a new round of planetary missions, including Magellan, a Venus orbiter, and Galileo, a Jupiter orbiter and probe. NASA is also a major participant in an international mission to observe the poles of the Sun (Ulysses). Once the Magellan spacecraft arrives at Venus, in early August 1990, it will be placed in an elliptical orbit whose distance from the planet ranges between 250 kilometers (155 miles) and 8,029 kilometers (4,889 miles). When it is close to Venus, the spacecraft will point its imaging radar at the planet’s surface to collect data. When farther away, the spacecraft will transmit its data to Earth. From 70 to 90 percent of the surface of Venus is expected to be mapped. The Magellan imaging radar will send out several thousand pulses of radio energy each second at the speed of light 300,000,000 meters a second, (186,000 miles a second) across a target swath. Magellan’s swath will range between 17 and 28 kilometers (10 and 17 miles) wide. The signals will bounce off the target and be detected by the spacecraft’s radar antenna. A two-dimensional radar image is constructed from three characteristics of each radar pulse: 1) The time the signal takes to make the round trip between instrument and target; 2) The Doppler shift, a measurement of relative motion that is akin to a change in pitch; and 3) Finally, the brightness, or reflectivity, of each component Your group has just been selected to design a new planetary probe to fly on the next generation of exploratory missions. The following procedure describes your task.


  • Decide the three scientific objectives your probe will try to fulfill. Be specific about the target planet(s) and the methods for meeting your objectives. (If it is going to study something, will it have to land or can it remain in orbit? Will it be taking pictures or collecting samples? Will it continue on to other planets?) Purpose #1: Purpose #2: Purpose #3:
  • Given the three objectives selected, decide how your probe will address them and what type of equipment is needed. Remember that all components must operate in the environment of space, and may need to provide protection from space hazards, such as meteorite collisions. Design and draw your group’s complete probe, labeling individual pieces. If you wish, you may show several angles, cross-sections, or magnifications of the complete probe.
  • Groups present and discuss results. Have the groups identified similar objectives? If so, are their designs similar? Do you think NASA develops just one design for each of its probes? How do the groups’ probes compare to those actually launched? Which features are similar? Which are not?
  • View the Mars video.

  • How have the probes differed?
  • What are the pros and cons of landing on a planet vs. orbiting it? How will design differ based on whether the probe lands or not?
  • What type of hazards might a probe encounter? What are some way s you can try to prevent damage?