Serendipitous Martian Landers
Danny Stock
At 2:54 p.m. on November 26, 2018, the InSight Mars lander touched down on the surface of the Red Planet. Engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) celebrated the culmination of InSight’s nearly seven months long journey and the beginning of some groundbreaking science on the planet.

On the same day—and 34.8 million miles away—as InSight’s touchdown, a new team of engineers prepared to "launch" their own Martian probes. After weeks developing skills in block coding and robotics construction, GDS 6th graders began their culminating design/build for the unit: a set of reconnaissance probes to be sent ahead of a crewed spacecraft to Mars.

“Amazingly, we didn't design this project with yesterday's Mars landing in mind,” said Middle School computer science and English teacher Laura Loftus. “But it is probably the best happy accident of my teaching career.”

When the landers are showcased on the last day before winter break (the same day as the Family Box Project), check to see how students have responded to some of the following prompts from the detailed project rubric:
  • Does your control box take into account the weather conditions of Mars? (Is it dust and windproof?)
  • Was your probe able to control the intensity of its LED strobe light based off the surrounding ambient light?
  • Does your plan allow for repeated access to the motherboard?

Based on Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE lab, Hummingbird kits enable children to construct robots from simple craft materials. Laura—along with science teachers Stephen Harris and Ethan Burns—have set the following design requirements:

  • Students should incorporate a location-triangulating distance sensor coupled with a servomechanism.
  • Students should incorporate visibility features: “To make it more visible, your probe must have a tri-LED that continually runs through a multi-colored light pattern so that future astronauts can find it even in a dust storm. To save energy, the brightness of this light must change with the ambient light on Mars.”
  • Students should incorporate communication capabilities “to deliver a message of peace” to any intelligent alien life found on Mars.

As students get to work on their designs, NASA and JPL’s reconnaissance probe is also keeping busy snapping photos and investigating the deep interior of the plant. We will plan to share a photo gallery of the sixth graders’ masterpieces as we head off into winter break.


Staff writer Danny Stock tells the stories of teaching, learning, competing, creating, and performing at Georgetown Day School. He is a former GDS second grade teacher and current parent.

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