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Areology: The Study of Mars

The students will learn the challenges of operating a planetary rover and problem solve solutions by using a hands-on simulation.

Time Frame: 45 minutes


To have the rover driver design and execute a series of commands that will guide a human rover through a simulated Martian surface, allowing the rover team to experience some of the challenges of tele-operating a robotic vehicle on another planet.


1. Prepare a set of job cards for each rover team. Use 3X5 index cards, making a driver card, 3 rover cards, a timer card, and a judge card. This makes it easier to assign the next group of students by handing out the cards to reserve their role.

2. Use construction paper tiles (red 12" X 12" work well) to create the obstacle course that the rovers will traverse. Laminated tiles work the best and last for many uses. Do not use desks or chairs, as students may trip over them. Make any type of course by arranging the tiles symmetrically.

What You Do

  1. Preface the activity with a lesson on planetary rovers (e.g. Sojourner Mars Pathfinder Mission, Marie Curie -- Mars Surveyor 2001 Mission, FIDO, or Athena -- Mars 2003 and 2005 Missions. Good resources can be found at the Athena website or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website or the FIDO website.

  2. Choose or draw names of students to form teams of six. One student will be designated as "the rover driver", one will be the team timer, and another will be the team judge. The remaining three students will become the rover by hooking together in a line (both hands to the shoulders in front of them (O=O=O). The rover will be guided by the driver through an obstacle course (simulated Martian surface).

  3. The drivers will proceed through the course first, writing down the instructions That will guide the rover through the course (i.e. 3 steps forward, stop, 1 step left, stop, etc.)

  4. Once the drivers have recorded their upload sequences on their driver sheets, the rover races can begin. The rover teams line up at the starting line. The three rover members are blindfolded, as to not aid the driver in executing their commands. The rover members link up (to form the 3 sets of wheels like the real rover designs) with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them (it is fun to choose different-sized students to form a rover, as the different sizes of steps taken by each is more evident.) The judges will keep a tally of the number of foot faults that their rover team makes by counting each time the front rover person's foot steps on a red tile (Mars rock). The timer of each team will record the time it takes for their rover team to make it through the course. (NOTE: remind the teams that accuracy, not speed is more important when driving a robotic vehicle on another planetary surface.)

  5. The teams will all start at the same time, with the timers starting the team stopwatches when the teacher indicates. The driver may stand near their team to give the command sequences, but may not physically touch their rover to help guide it (this is, after all, teleoperations!) They must guide their rover by voice only. The rover driver may not deviate from the commands that have been written in their previous trip through the course, even if the rover is going off course. Many times in robotic missions, a sequence of commands are sent all at once. Changes have to be added later.

  6. Allow time for all teams to complete the course. Gather the class to debrief how the driving went -- the challenges and what they might change to do a better job the next time.

  7. The students might observe that their steps and those of the rover people Might need some type of calibration (i.e. "take baby steps" or "take giant steps". Turns might be more accurate by saying "turn 45 or 90 degrees". Running a rover with 3 axles is also different than walking a course singularly.

  8. Repeat the activity as time permits, allowing the changes the students' brainstormed to be tested.

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  What You Need

  • Large playing area (classroom, gym, or outside area)
  • Three blindfolds per team
  • A clipboard and pencil for each driver and official
  • Obstacles - laminated construction paper works well (note: do not use any materials that the blindfolded students will trip or fall over).
  • A stopwatch for the timer of each team
  • Driver's sheet
  • Job cards with team numbers

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Information Sheet and Course Directions

Judges Sheet


1. Safety cones can be added to the course as return sample rocks to be collected. When the rover is in the proper position for the last person on in the rover team to bend down (blindfolded) and pick up the cone, the driver can command "retrieve rock sample." Once the cone has been retrieved, the cone can be passed to the middle rover person to be carried.

2. A video camera and monitor could be set up, so that the driver is in another room, allowing for a closer simulation to tele-operation. The driver would have to interpret the images and driving pathway with only the camera images (camera being held by the lead rover person) to guide them. Commands could be sent via a "runner" student, simulating the wait time that occurs in real space communication. Real communication with Mars varies with the distance between Earth and Mars (4 minutes to 20+ minutes each way.)

3. The tiles can be arranged in any design to make the course easier or more difficult (according to grade level or student's ability.) If course is set up outside, you might want to tape the underside of the tiles, to prevent the course being disturbed by any wind.


1. Have student design or build their own rovers, explaining what type of Instrumentation they would include and why it is necessary.

2. Have students research the types of rovers or other type of robotic spacecraft that are already traveling toward their destination or are being developed for solar system exploration. Good examples are:

The Cassini Mission to Saturn

The Galileo Mission to Jupiter

The MUSES Mission
asteroids website

The Stardust Mission
comets website

Mars Exploration Rover Mission