Lesson 5: Plan a mission to a recently discovered planet


This lesson will require approximately four 30-minute periods:

  • two for research and preparation of presentations
  • one for presentations
  • one for closing discussion


Demonstrate and explain the importance of selecting appropriate processes for investigating scientific questions and solving technological problems (e.g., explain why astrology is not a part of science)
Demonstrate the importance of using the languages of science and technology to compare and communicate ideas, processes, and results (e.g., use appropriate terminology such as "constellations," "planets," "moons," "comets," "asteroids," and "meteors" to describe objects in space)
Identify various methods for finding answers to given questions and solutions to given problems, and select one that is appropriate (e.g., use local papers or science periodicals for listings of planets that are visible at a particular time)
Plan a set of steps to solve a practical problem and to carry out a fair test of a science-related idea (e.g., plan a procedure to test a hypothesis in a simulated moon crater activity)
Identify and use a variety of sources and technologies to gather pertinent information (e.g., use electronic and print resources or visit a planetarium to gather information on the visual characteristics of planets)
Communicate procedures and results, using lists, notes in point form, sentences, charts, graphs, drawings, and oral language (e.g., write a postcard describing your holiday on a planet other than Earth and include in the description the key characteristics of that planet)
Describe the physical characteristics of components of the solar system - specifically, the sun, planets, moons, comets, asteroids, and meteors
Describe how astronauts are able to meet their basic needs in space

General Objectives

By planning a mission to a recently discovered planet, students will:

  • reinforce their understanding of spacecraft design
  • become familiar with distances in space
  • determine necessary items for astronauts on a long-term mission
  • qualify a planet's life-sustaining conditions

Curricular Connections

  • Language Arts
    • research
    • writing

Lesson Overview

Through role play, students will engage in a space planning mission. While planning their mission to a newly discovered planet, groups will need to consider one of many factors, including spacecraft design, distances in space, mission supplies, and qualifications for life-sustaining planets.

Materials and Resources

  • Cooperative Learning Rubric
  • books, magazines, websites about manned space travel

Developing the Lesson

Open class with a "newsflash" about a newly discovered planet orbitting somewhere between Jupiter and the asteroid belt. Until recently, this planet had been mistaken for a large asteroid on the outer edge of the asteroid belt, but new improvements on the Hubble Space Telescope have revealed evidence of frozen water on the object's surface, conditions suggesting planetary status. Several nations are now working together to compile a team of astronauts and scientists for an exploratory mission to this new planet, and need help in planning the mission.

Your students' assignment is to assist this international team by researching the following:

  • spacecraft design
  • distances in space
  • concerns for astronauts on a long-term mission
  • qualifications for life-sustaining planets

Explain the parameters of the assignment as follows:

  1. the class will be divided into four groups. Each group will be responsible for one of four research areas:
    • spacecraft design: students should look at past lunar missions and deep space probes (i.e., Voyager) to determine spacecraft requirements for cargo/supply transport, long flights and unassisted take-off and landing.
    • distances in space: students should research relative distances between Earth and other planets in our solar system, determining from this the approximate length of time necessary to reach the new planet. Past Galileo and Voyager missions should be referenced.
    • concerns for astronauts on a long-term mission: students will need to research past lunar missions (Apollo) to determine those items necessary for a long-term manned mission in space -- consider things such as food, water, waste management, fuel, exercise equipment, air recycling, maintenance/repairs, etc.
    • qualifications for life-sustaining planets: students should answer this question by considering our home planet's resources, and determining which elements are necessary for sustaining human, animal, and plant life. Consider factors such as: distance from the Sun; surface conditions; atmospheric conditions (both for air and for protection from asteroids and from the Sun's harmful rays); presence of water (either frozen or liquid); etc.
  2. refer students to the Cooperative Learning Rubric, by which they will be evaluated. Students will be expected to participate fully in their group's assigned topic, debating and contributing to the group's progress.
  3. students (at the teacher's discretion) may be instructed to either display their findings in poster format, overheads, or may simply prepare an oral presentation of their research for the class.

Allow students approximately two class periods to research and prepare their findings for the class, after which time one class period should be allotted for group presentations.


Allow a final class period for a whole-class discussion regarding the plausibility of such a mission, given the fact that humans have (as yet) not ventured beyond the Moon on manned missions. Is a longer mission possible? Should it be a goal of space programs here and internationally?


Evaluate students' group work based upon the Cooperative Learning Rubric.

Cooperative Learning Rubric
CATEGORY Excellent Good Satisfactory Needs Improvement
Contribution to Group Regularly provides useful ideas to group; contributes a strong effort Often provides useful ideas to group; tries hard Sometimes provides useful ideas to group; does what is required Rarely provides useful ideas to group; may refuse to participate
Quality of Work Highest quality work High quality work Work sometimes needs monitoring or re-doing Work usually needs monitoring or re-doing
Effectiveness Regularly paces work well; does not need to be encouraged to get work done on time Usually paces work well; may have needed some encouragement to get work done on time, but does not hold up group's progress Tends to procrastinate, but always gets work done on time Rarely paces work well; group's progress is held up by inadequate time management
Attitude Never openly critical of project or others' work; positive attitud Rarely openly critical of project or others' work; mostly positive attitude Sometimes openly critical of project or others' work; partially negative attitude Often openly critical of project or others' work; mostly negative attitude
Preparedness Always ready to begin tasks Almost always ready to begin tasks Almost always brings needed materials, but distractions sometimes slow progress Often forgets to bring materials or is rarely ready to begin tasks
Collaboration Almost always contributes to group dynamic by listening, sharing, and supporting others' efforts; encourages  group unity Usually contributes to group dynamic by listening, sharing, and supporting others' efforts; does not create problems for group Sometimes contributes to group dynamic by listening, sharing, and supporting others' efforts; sometimes a poor team player Rarely contributes to group dynamic by listening, sharing, and supporting others' efforts; often a poor team player