Late last month NASA scientists confirmed that Mars has liquid water flowing on its surface, a finding that the agency’s planetary science division director called “tremendously exciting” because it supports speculation that the Red Planet might be able to support life.
Mars is extremely cold: the average surface temperature is about -60 degrees Celsius (-80 degrees Fahrenheit), far below the freezing point of water. Until now it was generally thought that all available water on Mars was contained in frozen ice caps at its poles. But by analyzing photographs that showed dark streaks running down slopes on the planet’s surface, scientists discerned that the streaks contained hydrated salts. That indicated that liquid water, either from Mars’ atmosphere or from underground, was dampening those areas.
Annenberg Learner’s Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum course for middle and high school teachers uses photographs to demonstrate how scientists and engineers think about problems. It includes a case study that examines investigations of water on Mars to teach students about processes of science: posing questions, interpreting data, constructing explanations, and arguing from evidence. Students can compare geological features on Mars and Earth, form hypotheses about their functions, and look for evidence of water on Mars. Complement these with images and animations from NASA that were released to support the September 28 announcement.
And since a good movie hook is always handy in the classroom, note that NASA provided technical advice to director Ridley Scott for his just-released movie The Martian, which stars Matt Damon as an astronaut who is stranded on Mars in 2035 and has to figure out how to survive for four years until the next mission from Earth arrives. Planetary scientists have praised the movie as a well-told story rooted in sound science, with one exception: To generate a storm as strong as the gale that strands Damon’s character in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere, winds would have to blow at over 10,000 miles per hour. But that’s a small issue to overlook in a movie where science is the star.