This activity introduces kids to the MESSENGER Mission to the planet Mercury. The engineers who designed the spacecraft and the instrument payload had to consider function, space (or volume), and cost. In this online interactive, your kids will have the chance to try to fit all the critical equipment into the cargo bay of a spacecraft by taking into account space and cost constraints.
Mercury is the least explored of the terrestrial planets—the last spacecraft data on Mercury came from Mariner 10, over 30 years ago. The MESSENGER (MEcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) Mission to the planet launched in 2004. The spacecraft will enter Mercury’s orbit in 2011 and collect data for one full Earth year. Of the four terrestrial planets in our solar system—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—Mercury is the smallest and densest. MESSENGER aims to find out six things about Mercury: why it is so dense; the planet’s geologic history; more about the magnetic field; what its core is made of; what materials can be found at the poles; and the composition of its exosphere. Understanding more about Mercury can lead to a better understanding of the planets in our solar system and how they formed and evolved.
To give kids perspective, ask: “Can you name a few, or all of the planets?” (At this age, kids certainly could know all of them and the order in which they come from the sun [Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune].)
Regardless of how much they know, go to Solar System on KidsAstronomy. It will pull up a Solar System in action.
Depending on your group, you can allow your kids to lead the discussion or jump right in by pointing out Mercury. It is the first planet from the sun.
You may want to also point out Venus, the next one, Earth, third from the sun, then Mars, fourth from the sun. These are all terrestrial planets. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are all gas planets.
Now ask kids: “How do you think we learn about planets that are so far from Earth? For instance, it takes more than six months to travel to Mars!” (There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Some kids may know about Mars and the Mars Rovers that were sent to the Red Planet. When talking about exploring Mercury, be sure to point out the challenge of the planet being so close to the sun and its long distance from Earth.)
Now kids are ready to do the interactive on their own. Give each kid a Make a Mission activity sheet and a pen or pencil and point them toward the student web page. The activity sheet will provide kids with the URL to access the interactive.
Afterward, you may want to revisit with your group what they learned. Ask: “What was the hardest thing about the activity? Were you surprised by anything? Now what do you think of the planet Mercury?”
Remember "My Very Educated Mother...." That's right! It's part of a sentence to help you remember your planets! Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars. You make up the rest of the sentence for Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune! In this online activity, you'll have a chance to act like a spacecraft engineer by deciding what equipment to send up in a spacecraft destined for Mercury.