Geeky Parent Guide: What Parents and Kids Will Want to Know About NASA’s Mars Rover Landing

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission will land on February 18, 2021. After launching last July, this journey through space to the Red Planet will have taken less than seven months. Whether you geek out over science fiction films, enjoy binge-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, or you love any and all things related to outer space, then you’re in luck, as there are opportunities to be active on landing day.

Everyone will have an opportunity to “watch live as Perseverance lands on Mars!” I’m thrilled to have this chance as a parent to experience such a monumental occasion with my kids. NASA has created a Facebook event for the space-loving community to ask questions of experts while also getting updates on news related to the mission. You also have a chance to watch on their website, which includes a complete schedule leading up to the launch, or view it directly on NASA’s YouTube channel.

If you’re hoping to explore Mars and this event, the Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission has several objectives that look to understand Mars’ geology, climate, and the possibility of past life, while also expanding future mission capabilities. On its own, Perseverance is the most advanced rover to be sent to the Red Planet. The technology that accompanies it will be able to learn a lot – and set aside samples to be sent back to Earth.




And if you haven’t geeked out enough at the prospect of finding life on Mars, Perseverance has an instrument with a name perfect for the investigation of whether there is life elsewhere beyond our planet. When in doubt, ask SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals). “Mounted on the rover's robotic arm, SHERLOC uses spectrometers, a laser, and a camera to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life.”

Plus, how could searching for life be any better for SHERLOC if it didn’t include his longtime partner? Well, never fear! WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) will be assisting. That’s right, SHERLOC will be “working in tandem with WATSON, a camera that will take close-up pictures of rock textures. Together, they will study rock surfaces, mapping out the presence of certain minerals and organic molecules, which are the carbon-based building blocks of life on Earth.”

Not only is SHERLOC searching for life, it carries materials of astronaut spacesuits to test how they will fair in such severe conditions on Mars. To give you an idea of why this is very important information to gain on future missions for landing people on this foreign soil, data retrieved on its temperature (January 28, 2021) noted that the high was 10˚ F (-12˚ C), with a low of -101˚ F (-74˚ C). If there’s ever a reason to tell your kids something astronomical and watch their eyes grow wider at the prospect of such cold weather, this might be your chance.

In addition to SHERLOC and several other instruments, PIXL represents another way for Perseverance to investigate microbial life. Also know as the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, PIXL is able to detect chemicals on a small scale. Your kids might ask, “How small?” Well, it turns out it can “see features as small as a grain of salt.” And, yes, your kids might be astounded by that, as well.

To better understand how PIXL will help search for ancient life on the Martian planet, your kids might appreciate this analogy: “Microbes change the texture and chemistry of their environment. Your mouth is one example! Think about the plaque your dentist scrapes off your teeth. That hard stuff is minerals left behind by millions of bacteria. It's an example of a ‘biofilm.’ Biofilms form when a group of microbes stick together to form a surface. You can find biofilms on surfaces everywhere in nature. PIXL can detect signs of biofilms made by microbes in the Martian environment long ago. Rocks can preserve their texture and chemistry.”




So, not only is there an opportunity to learn about potential life on Mars that might’ve existed, there are so many other things that NASA has prepared for. There are technologies that will assist the lander, meaning they will be even more prepared for parachute deployment and avoiding difficult terrain, and they’ll have cameras and a microphone to record the landing. In fact, “the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission carries more cameras than any interplanetary mission in history, with 19 cameras on the rover itself and four on other parts of the spacecraft involved in entry, descent, and landing.”

NASA wants to capture as much information as possible, and people truly want to be a part of seeing what happens. Over 10.9 million people participated in the “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign, which allowed individuals to include their name to be carried by the Perseverance Rover. This means that NASA does a great job at providing opportunities for anyone to be involved in some way, which is especially important for kids who might have an interest in learning more things about space, planets, or NASA in general.

They even had a “Name the Rover” contest, and a seventh grader’s essay was the winning selection. On top of that, from those same submissions, an eleventh grader earned the honor of naming the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, which also hitched a ride on the rover. Oh, in case you need another highlight to point out to your kids, they’re going to attempt their first aircraft flight on another planet with this helicopter. If successful, this might help with future reconnaissance of the Red Planet by exploring areas that are too difficult for rovers or astronauts themselves.

Are your kids excited about the Mars landing? Do they seem to be interested in learning about STEM opportunities? If your kids do have an interest in learning more and becoming a part of the process that brings to light such missions, there are available research programs. These programs are available for postdoctoral, graduate, undergraduate, and high school students.

Lastly, if you want to discuss with your kids the amount of work that is put into these missions, let them understand the significance of this landing and what happens after traveling such great distances. Not only can they watch a video depicting the landing itself, but they will understand that seven important minutes will dictate the future of this mission as it faces intense heat from entry, deploying a parachute, and then safely landing.

If any of that sounds entertaining to try on your own, NASA created a Mission to Mars Student Challenge where students of all grades learn to “design, build, launch, and land a Mars mission.” This is undoubtedly a fantastic way to engage with your kids about space, and it’s free to register!

Will you be watching the Mars landing? Leave a comment below if you are or let us know what you thought about the event. Also, if you like this content and want to see more space-related coverage, don’t forget to like this article and share with all of your geeky friends over on Facebook and Twitter.

Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.



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