Mars Mapping Inquiry-Based Activity Using Google Earth

Teardrop islands on Mars (Credit: NASA JPL)

Teardrop islands on Mars
(Credit: NASA JPL)

By Dr. Alyssa Gilbert and Dr. Bhairavi Shankar

Activity Summary

Planetary scientists are interested in searching for evidence of past water flow on Mars because it could point to presence of life. But what are they looking for? In this inquiry-based activity, students learn about the similarities and differences between the surfaces of Mars and Earth. Students also build basic mapping skills and learn which types of landforms indicate evidence for past water flow. The students then act as scientists and use Google Earth and other online image databases to search for evidence of past water flow, choose the best landing site for the next rover, and present and defend their report to the “space agency”. This is a research-based inquiry activity using the RAFT technique (see, for example).

1) The teacher gives a background presentation, which includes a general overview of Mars observations, how scientists can understand the landscape of Mars by studying our own planet, and which landforms could indicate past water flow on Mars.
2) The teacher gives the students tutorials on how to use Google Earth and Mars image databases.
3) Students work in small groups to use Google Earth to search for three areas on Mars that show evidence of past water flow, and choose the best site for the next mission to Mars.
4) Students gather images, and prepare a report to justify their landing site.
5) Students present their report to the teacher and other students (the “space agency”), and answer questions about their chosen landing site.
6) The teacher gives a wrap-up presentation, summarizing results that show evidence of past water flow on Mars.

By the end of this activity, students will be able to: 1) understand the difference between observations and inferences, 2) use observations of Earth to make inferences about landforms on Mars, 3) identify the criteria in choosing surface features that show evidence of water flow, 4) use these criteria to choose the best location for a landing site and to justify their decisions, 5) describe the geological history and processes involved in landscape formation on Mars, and 6) describe how different satellite data sets work and the value of remote sensing in geological interpretations.

Procedure for Teachers

This activity can be completed over the course of three class periods (minimum) or can be extended depending on how in-depth the teacher chooses to go with the topic. The first class-period is dedicated to an introductory PowerPoint presentation highlighting key features of water flow on both Earth and Mars, and Google Earth tutorial, both of which
include detailed notes for each slide. In the second period, students will choose a landing site, gather images to justify their choice, and create their report. Groups will present and defend their landing sites in the final period.

• PowerPoint presentation with notes (see Resources section below)
• Google Earth tutorial with notes (see Resources section)
• Student worksheets (see Resources section)
• Google Earth installed on computers ahead of time (download from
NOTE: Google Earth is a separate program that must be downloaded to the computer (not a program that can be used in a browser). The most up-to-date version is ideal, but the activity can be done with older versions.
• Any additional software needed for the final presentations
• Wrap-up presentation with notes (see Resources section)

CPSX has designed a PowerPoint presentation to accompany this activity. Before starting, hand out the lab worksheet and inform the students that Parts A, B, and C can be filled in during the presentation. The presentation provides information about Mars observations, how scientists can understand the landscape of Mars by studying our own planet, and which landforms could indicate past water flow on Mars. Speaker notes are included for each slide in the presentation.

Google Earth Tutorial
CPSX has also provided PowerPoint slides for a Google Earth tutorial, which includes speaker notes. The tutorial is best done when students have access to a computer with Google Earth installed, so they can learn how to use the program in steps and ask any questions they might have. This tutorial also provides information on how to access Mars image databases (specifically, for HiRISE and CTX cameras on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter). It is suggested that the teacher becomes familiar with Google Earth before the activity is done with the students.

Grade 9 students at College Avenue SS being asked questions about their landing site. (Credit: Ryan Dunne)

Grade 9 students at College Avenue SS
being asked questions about their
landing site. (Credit: Ryan Dunne)

Research Project
Using Parts D and E to guide them, students use Google Earth to search for three areas that show evidence of past water flow and record their latitude and longitude. They should search for and make observations and inferences of water flow features as outlined in the slide show presentation. The students then decide which of their three chosen areas would make the best landing site for the next Mars mission, and search for HiRISE and CTX images to justify why their chosen area is interesting in terms of past water flow. Students should also provide “context images” — which are images of their chosen area from a zoomed-out perspective. Using these images, students create a final report to present to the class. A student check-list is provided in the Resources section below.

Parts F, G, and H on the worksheet are optional and can be used with time permitting. Part F asks students to draw a map of their chosen landing site by hand, Part G has students researching real missions to Mars, and Part H is a list of terminology associated with this activity.

Final Report
The final report can be completed in any format of the teacher’s choosing. We have used platforms such as oral presentations using PowerPoint slides, posters, blog posts, video or audio interviews, Glogster (, and Animoto ( It is beneficial for each group or student to present their results to the class so that other students can ask questions and give feedback on their findings. A marking scheme has been developed and can be found in the Resources section below.

Once the students complete their presentations, the teacher can give the wrap-up presentation, which summarizes recent evidence for past water flow on Mars. Depending on time constraints, this activity can lead into discussions about the benefits of conducting research on other planets, and ethical considerations on what should be done if life on Mars
is ever found.

For a full list of resources for this activity, please visit the Mars Mapping section of the CPSX Inquiry activity page.

Closing Notes
Thank you for participating in the education and outreach initiatives of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration! We are always thinking of new Planetary Science-focused activities to share in classrooms and with the public. If you have any comments, questions, recommendations for how we can make this program stronger, or want a Planetary Scientist to visit your classroom (even virtually!), please contact us:

The Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration
Dr. Alyssa Gilbert – Outreach Coordinator
Phone: 519-661-2111 x88508

Websites / Resources
Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration:
Smarter Science:

Funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and Western University has made this program possible. We thank Ryan Dunne, teacher at College Avenue Secondary School in Woodstock, Ontario, and Jenny Shaw, a teacher at Westminster Secondary School in London, Ontario, for their help in developing and testing this activity.

Curriculum Connection: Grade 9 (Academic); Grade 9 (Applied); Grade 12 (Earth and Space Sciences).

The Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at The University of Western Ontario (Western) formed in 2008 and has quickly become the largest research centre in Canada focusing on planetary science and exploration. With over 50 faculty members and 35 graduate students, the centre spans 10 departments within Western.

Part of our vision is to “strengthen and grow the Canadian space community through inspiring and training the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

The CPSX Education and Outreach program has reached over 31,000 participants since 2009. All of our activities are linked to the Ontario science curriculum, incorporate current research conducted at Western, and use Smarter Science techniques. The above is an inquiry-based activity on the subject of landforms on Mars, and links with grade 9 and 12 Space Science courses.

Dr. Alyssa Gilbert received her PhD in Astronomy from The University of Western Ontario (Western) in 2009 and is now the Outreach Coordinator for the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at Western. Dr. Bhairavi Shankar received her PhD in Planetary Science from Western in 2013, and was a graduate teaching assistant for the CPSX outreach program during her studies. Alyssa and Bhairavi are both dedicated to creating engaging activities for space-related topics at all grade levels.