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Landmark Lesson Plan: Mars Exploration with Infrared Spectrometers

Grades: 9-12
Subject areas: Chemistry and history
Principal author: Susan Cooper

The following inquiry-based student activities are designed for use in high school chemistry lesson planning, but they apply to all science subjects and also to the history of space exploration. Some middle school teachers may also find the lesson outline helpful. The lesson plan will help students understand the importance of instrumentation on space probes.

The content is designed as a ready-to-go lesson, easily implemented by a teacher or substitute, to supplement a unit of study. The chemistry activities relate to infrared (IR) spectrometry and how it works. The history activity covers the chronology of Mars exploration and asks students to think about the future of Mars exploration. Students also practice critical reading and writing skills in the lesson.

Download the complete lesson plan (PDF).

Resources include:

  • Teacher’s guide: Includes the handout, student activities and answer guide
  • Handout: “Mars Exploration with Infrared Spectrometers”
  • Student activities: Include the activities described below.

Student activities:

While these activities are thematically linked to Mars exploration by the Mariner 6 and 7 spacecraft, each is designed to stand alone as an accompaniment for the handout. Teachers may choose activities based on curricular needs and time considerations.

  • Anticipation Guide and Reading on “Mars Exploration with Infrared Spectrometers” Students examine their ideas about the importance of IR spectrometers to the exploration of Mars. (5 minute introduction, followed by 15-20 minutes of reading)
  • History Exercise: Chronology of Mars Exploration Students chronologically order events in the reading. Students predict the future of Mars exploration and create a timeline. (10-15 minutes)
  • Graphic Organizer and Writing Exercise: Chemistry and Mars Exploration Students describe the chemicals found on Mars by the IR spectrometers, as well as concepts related to the instrumentation. (20-25 minutes)
  • Writing Exercise: Mars Exploration, IR Spectrometers, and You Students consider how the exploration of Mars affects their lives, now and in the future. (15-20 minutes)


artist's rendition of Mariner 6 or 7 spacecraft near Mars
Infrared spectrometers on the Mariner spacecraft scanned the atmospheric and surface chemistry of Mars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

cover of Landmark brochure pdf
Cover from "A Novel Infrared Spectrometer and the Exploration of Mars" booklet, produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2017.