To explore the purpose and constraints of technology by preparing a spacecraft for a mission to Mercury.
This lesson revolves around the MESSENGER spacecraft mission to Mercury (MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging). The focus of the lesson is technology, not only how it allows humans to collect scientific data and information on a faraway terrestrial planet, but also the constraints involved in designing the spacecraft to carry this technology.
Students will have an introduction to the planet Mercury in the first part of the development. However, if you want to give students a more comprehensive overview of the planet Mercury, including its composition, geology, and other characteristics, we recommend that they complete the Science NetLinks lesson Mercury before doing this lesson.
In the Motivation section of this lesson, students will start with a discussion about exploration, why it is necessary and how technology facilitates it. The first part of the development offers a brief introduction to Mercury and the MESSENGER Mission before having students get to the heart of the lesson, an interactive called Make a Mission, which asks them to prepare a spacecraft for a mission to the planet Mercury. While doing the interactive, students must take into account the cost of the mission and the design constraints of the spacecraft.
In middle school, students are ready to explore the likes and differences between science and technology. Research suggests, however, that "students typically do not distinguish between an engineering model of experimentation where the goal is to produce a desirable outcome and the scientific model of experimentation where the goal is to understand the relation between causes and effects." (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 334 .) While actual definitions are not yet important, Benchmarks points out that an awareness that these likes and differences exist is important. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 46 .) This lesson will not focus so broadly on the likes and differences, but rather, on the one aspect that technology is necessary for science in terms of data collecting, communication, etc.
Middle-school students should become familiar with complex systems. They should at some point work with control mechanisms and "meet more interesting and challenging constraints as they work on design projects." (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 46 .) This lesson offers the real-life constraint of physical space that the MESSENGER engineers had to consider when planning the technology for this mission.
You may want to read:
- Spacecraft Design to learn more about the MESSENGER spacecraft
- Exploring the Planets: Mercury to learn more about the planet
- Nature of Technology, an essay from chapter 3 of Science for All Americans that covers to the importance of technology
Write the words "exploration" and "technology" on the board. Ask students:
- What explorers or explorations can you think of right away? (Some common answers may be Christopher Columbus, Mason and Dixon, and hopefully explorations to Mars or the moon, but really, the answers do not matter. This is just to get students thinking about the importance of exploration. Do not discount smaller scale explorations that students themselves may have done.)
- Why do people create missions to go to outer space or to other remote locations? (The answer of collecting samples and data to study for the sake of science may not be apparent just yet, but students will have ideas that inevitably should lead to these things. For instance, a student may say going to a remote location is done out of curiosity. This is not wrong, it just begs the question, "What are we curious about?" Lead students by asking: "How and why do we try to learn about the things that make us curious? How do we get the information back to a place where we can study it?" You are touching on the fact that technology is the eyes and ears of science.)
- How do you think technology helps explorers accomplish their goals? (Answers may range from transportation to data collection to communication.)
- How do you think you would prepare for an exploratory trip? What would you need to bring? (List students' ideas and when finished perhaps point to the fact that they will need to transport everything they are bringing.)
- Do you think you would have any difficulties in bringing all that you would need?
Students should follow instructions on the Mercury Here We Come! student esheet. Part One, Learn About MESSENGER, Mission to Mercury, will instruct them to read MESSENGER: The Mission, a short article on the MESSENGER website.
Then, they will explore short readings at the MESSENGER: Mission to Mercury interactive. They will be instructed to stop for discussion, but should keep the webpage open. They will continue from this page after you ask these questions:
- What are some of the data MESSENGER will collect from Mercury? (Examples include information on: topography, atmospheric gases, minerals on the surface, magnetosphere, and images.)
- How is the data collected? (It is collected with miniature instruments. You may want to reiterate that the instruments are a result of technology.)
- Who do you think will use the data? (The point is for students to make the link that technology allows data collection for science and scientists. Some students may be savvy enough to understand that engineers will also use some of the data, perhaps to better design future instruments.)
- What sorts of constraints did the engineers and scientists have to consider when designing the spacecraft and planning the mission? (One thing that is mentioned in this article is the need for rocket fuel and that scientists and engineers had to keep the weight of the spacecraft at an absolute minimum, both so they could conserve space for fuel and so it would use less fuel. Another consideration that comes into play with constraint is the fact that the spacecraft will fly very close to the sun. A lightweight thermal shade is being used to shade the spacecraft.)
Part Two, Help Design and Plan the Technology for a Space Mission has students go to an online interactive activity called Make a Mission. Students will plan which pieces of scientific equipment they will need on board the spacecraft in order to complete the goals of a mission successfully. The equipment must not only fit on the spacecraft, but the cost of the equipment must also fall within a specified budget. After students are finished, address the benchmarks with these questions:
- What is the goal of this interactive activity?
- What constraints did you notice when planning what instruments you would bring and the spacing in the cargo area of your spacecraft? (The two main constraints are budget and physical space.)
- Do you think that these constraints would apply to any space mission? (Make a point that there are always constraints. With any exploration there will be a budget, and with any space exploration there will be space/mass constraints.)
- How does technology help accomplish the goals of the MESSENGER mission? (Though this is slightly redundant, you want to be sure students understand that technology is necessary for measuring, collecting data and samples, sending or bringing information back to earth, and communication.)
For the assessment, ask students to chart out preliminary plans for a mission. Print out the Planning My Own Mission student sheets, which will guide them in deciding on their plans for a mission. These sheets will help you see if students have attained the following understandings:
- That technology will be needed for their mission. The technology will be useful in students' missions in terms of collecting data, storing it, and returning it to a destination. Students will express this technology by listing the instruments they will need and what the instruments will need to do.
- That a mission is for the attainment of knowledge for many people, of course scientists, but others as well.
- That planning a mission will have to take into consideration design constraints.
For further exploration of how technology can be essential to science for exploring remote locations, you can lead students through Looking into Space.
Exploring the Solar System helps students learn more about our solar system while planning a trip to another planet.
To learn more about the MESSENGER mission, visit the MESSENGER website.
At the Nine Planets, students can either explore the whole solar system, or go right to information about Mercury.