Classroom Activities: Buried Water Ice on Mars

Developed through a collaboration of educators and scientists associated with the Mars Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS) Team

In 2001, the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft discovered significant amounts of water ice buried in the high latitude regions of Mars. This exciting discovery was based upon data from the Mars Gamma Ray Spectrometer and has been a primary motivation for the development of the Mars Phoenix Lander, which plans to land in the northern high latitudes of Mars in 2008 and investigate this buried water ice.

The Mars Gamma Ray Spectrometer science team has worked with a diverse group of educators to develop five classroom activities related to this exciting discovery. These field-tested activities involve both guided and open inquiry activities using real data from Mars to investigate and learn about processes occurring on the planet. The activities address items found in all 7 of the National Science Education Content Standards. These draft lessons are currently going through the NASA educational review process.

The lessons are targeted towards students in late middle school and early high school enrolled in earth and physical science classes. Each of the lessons has been developed as a stand alone activity, although it is also possible to sequence these activities into a unit regarding water ice on Mars. A brief summary of each lesson is provided below along with a link to teacher guides, student guides, multimedia presentations, and lesson extensions. For further information on these activities and other education projects visit the Mars Gamma Ray Spectrometer Website or contact Dr. John Keller or Sanlyn Buxner.

Lesson Title: Why Follow the Water
Target Grades Level: 6-10
Target Curriculum: Life Science, Physical Science, Earth Science
A key component of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is to “Follow the Water” to better understand the geology, climate, and potential for life on the planet. Students investigate several physical properties of liquid water to better understand why we think water is important for life. An extension activity investigates the connection between liquid water and plant productivity on Earth.

Lesson Title: Remote Sensing Ices on Mars
Target Grade Level: 8-10
Target Curriculum: Earth Science, Physical Science
Students analyze data collected by Mars spacecraft using three different energies of light – visible light, infrared light, and gamma rays – to investigate the composition and distribution of ices at the high latitude regions of Mars. This Socratic-Dialogue Inducing activity guides students to understand that seasonal carbon dioxide ice covers buried water ice during the winter season and that the permanent ice caps in the northern and southern hemispheres are made of different types of ice. In an extension activity, students use a computer simulation illustrating how gamma rays can be used to determine the composition of the Martian surface.

Lesson Title: Dirty Ice or Icy Dirt
Target Grade Level: 6-10
Target Curriculum: Earth Science, Physical Science
Large amounts of water ice appear to be buried at high latitudes on Mars. In this activity, students make physical models using Earth samples to investigate whether it is more likely that these regions of Mars are composed of icy dirt (with ice filling the pore space of soils) or dirty ice (with dust sprinkled through a mostly icy surface).

Lesson Title: Mars Exploration Debate
Target Grade Level: 6-10
Target Curriculum: Earth Science, Physical Science
Students are challenged to conduct research regarding the future of Mars exploration. They then conduct a student debate in which they discuss the future ways we might explore Mars and benefits and challenges associated with Mars exploration.

Lesson Title: Mars Image Analysis Extension Activity
Target Grade Level: 6-10
Target Curriculum: Earth Science, Physical Science
The 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft carries two primary instruments, the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) and the Mars Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS). This extension activity provides data regarding the global distribution of hydrogen on Mars determined by GRS to complement an image analysis activity developed around images collected by THEMIS. Teacher and student guides for the image analysis activity are available at