Live From Mars was active July 1996-December 1997.

Weather Worlds

Two new activities for fall '97


NASA's Pathfinder spacecraft and its Sojourner rover have done an amazing job of characterizing the rocks surrounding its Ares Vallis landing site. But Pathfinder (renamed the Sagan Memorial Station in honor of astronomer Carl Sagan, 1934-1996) is also a weather station, recording temperature, wind speed and direction, and pressure. These familiar and easy-to-understand measurements, along with reports on clouds, dust devils, frosts and giant volcanoes, add to our understanding of Mars. The fact that we can receive daily weathercasts is a major reason Mars seems so real: like Earth, like our home states, it's a place with everyday phenomena.

Last year's "Planet Explorer Toolkit" project has been refined into two exciting activities that are suitable for a wide range of classrooms at varying levels of sophistication and with varying amounts of time available for participation.

The activities relate directly to the National Science Standards and should complement any existing Earth, space or general science curriculum. But most of all they should be engaging, informative and FUN for you and your students!

You can choose to participate in one or both phases because the entire activity begins now and should only run through the end of November.

The Challenge
Designing for Data: Phase 1

Online at the LFM site under Featured Events, you and your students can find a brief description of how Pathfinder is collecting weather data on Mars, right now. That description also provides links to more extensive information on NASA/JPL's own Pathfinder project pages and the University of Washington's LIVE FROM EARTH AND MARS project. (Not affiliated with LFM, but a great source of current Mars weather data!)

A brief description of the weather reports already sent back by Pathfinder and why it's of interest to scientists can be the starting point for class discussions.

The challenge for students is to figure out what key weather measurements they think are most important to gather here on Earth, and then how to obtain them, by designing, building and/or acquiring instruments to collect these data.

As part of this process, students will also have to figure out protocols or procedures about how and when to gather data. For example, is it enough to gather temperatures just at noon? Do you also need night-time lows? If you want maximum and minimum temperatures, how should you go about securing these? As another example: Pathfinder's temperature sensors are set at three different heights above the Martian surface because researchers knew there were great differences caused by just a few centimeters (yes, centimeters!) change in elevation. Would such measurements be relevant on Earth?

But students are not limited just to instruments paralleling those actually on Pathfinder. There's no rain gauge on the spacecraft, but rainfall is an important part of Earth's weather. Students should be encouraged to start from scratch and come up with their best ideas. Temperature, wind, pressure, humidity, hours of daylight, cloud cover-- these are all areas that students might consider.

There is a cost limit to keep everyone's ambitions in check: all the instruments together must not cost more than $100. You are not expected to buy the instruments: borrow, make, or otherwise access data, but don't use instrumentation worth more than $100. In addition, there is no size limitation: kids can suggest and build large anemometers and wind vanes: the challenge is more to figure out how to monitor weather on Earth, rather than deal with size constraints appropriate for launching an instrument pack to another.

After initial debate in class, students are invited to go online with their suggestions, comments and brainstorms. Veteran PTK teachers consider the online debate a key aspect of these collaborations and you are encouraged to get your students online (see below for instructions) as soon and as often as possible. But to focus the task, teachers are requested to work toward submitting only one plan per class. The process of formulating that plan-- by in-class debate, posting online and responding to other postings and by more internal discussion-- can be made into a rewarding activity for the students no matter whether the teacher posts the final results to the list, or also leaves that to students.

It is expected that there will be considerable free-form brainstorming, and that is welcomed. But because WEATHER WORLDS is intended to be short in duration, it has been arranged so that each class that submits a plan will get focused feedback from three other classes in more or less the same grade level, as well as more general comment from the entire list.

There will be elementary (3-5), middle (6-8) and high school (9+) categories. This will provide transcontinental (maybe intercontinental!) feedback to focus attention and lend significance to their activities. Based on the feedback and monitoring the wider debate students will come up with a final plan.

Based on review of all these plans, and with input from students and NASA experts, we'll arrive at our final consensus set of instruments and procedures.

Summary of Tasks

1. Access background information on Pathfinder and weather on Mars at the LFM Web site and review the specifics of the WEATHER WORLDS challenge. Debate what students have learned and discuss ideas in class. Subscribe to debate-lfm and submit questions and suggestions online. Read input from NASA Mars experts, discuss comments from other classes, and develop a plan and a protocol.

2. Fill out the special WEATHER WORLDS Web form to submit the class plan. Or, if you'd prefer, use e-mail (instructions and addresses to come once the WEATHER WORLDS debate is underway). Each plan must have sufficient detail about how the specific instruments will be built, how their accuracy will be tested, and how they will be used by the class to provide daily readings.

Plans may include drawings if the class has the skills and resources to include them as GIF or JPEG attachments. The special forms will permit text to be converted into HTML for display.

3. Each participating class will have its plan reviewed by three other participating classes in the same grade category, using a checklist that will provided. The feedback form will also have room for questions that must be answered by the original authors. (The comoderators of debate-lfm will be responsible for routing feedback to the submitting classes and will make sure comments are polite and to the point.)

4. After the submitting class receives the feedback, it will have a chance to think about the comments, work on a revised proposal, review elements they like in other classes' work, and post a final version. These final postings will go into a permanent online gallery of student work on the LFM Web site.

5. But just as NASA's scientists had to come to agreement on a single set of instruments that could actually travel to Mars and operate on its surface, LFM will look to foster one final consensus about WEATHER WORLDS, which will become the basis for Phase 2: Data Gathering. Students seem to have been happy with this process in previous projects, and we'll be doing our best to broker a (universally!) acceptable solution this time also.


LFM enlists NASA experts to respond to student plans and brokers a final consensus plan which all will follow during Phase 2. Students should be assured that the final WEATHER WORLDS will definitely be shaped by their collective ideas and suggestions.

All classes submitting final entries will receive a Certificate of Participation from LIVE FROM MARS.

Data Collection and Analysis: Phase 2

In this second phase of the activity, any class may sign up to contribute one or more sets of weather data on a daily basis for one or other (or both, if they have time!) of the two weeks between 11/3 and 11/14, whether they participated in Phase 1 or not. They can build their own WEATHER WORLDS (using the consensus plan developed during Phase 1), or they can use whatever other data sets they can access (local weathercasts or news reports), but they are responsible for doing so on a daily basis and assuring its accuracy. Their internal verification plans are part of the registration form they use to sign up. Discussions of the need for accuracy and acceptable variations can be part of the continuing online debate.

Classes will use a form provided by LFM to file their daily reports so that the data reported are in a standardized format. The specific types of data that a class chooses to collect will have been discussed online during Phase 1, and classes can access this archive to see if it helps them make their decision.

A younger class might choose to do temperature readings at three heights every day. An older class might choose to collect a comprehensive set of temperature, wind speed, air pressure and cloud-cover measurements.

The raw data will be mounted on the LFM site in a way that will make it easy to capture or download for Phase 2. It will also be displayed in a graphic format, just like the student-generated cloud patterns seen on the Live From the Hubble Space Telescope site.

While the data are being collected, during the weeks of 11/3 through 11/14, debate-lfm will host an online discussion of possible ways to analyze the accumulating data. Once more, LFM will make some suggestions, referring to Pathfinder and Earth-orbiting weather satellites, but students themselves will have the final say.

During the 11/13 LIVE FROM MARS broadcast, "Today on Mars," some of the classes who've been collecting data and have already begun work on their analysis will be featured.

Final WEATHER WORLDS reports will be due by 11/21. They will be posted on Quest and the student authors can respond to comments during December. Classes that submit daily data will receive online recognition. All classes that submit a full analysis of their weather data will receive a certificate of participation from LIVE FROM MARS.

We hope this sounds like fun! But we're also sure there'll be questions. That's what debate-lfm is for: teachers or students can ask away and our comoderators, PTK Advocates Susan Hurstcalderone and Eileen Bendixsen, will provide the answers.

Remember, the idea behind WEATHER WORLDS is to give students the feel of real world science. Not only will they be gathering data in ways parallel to what Pathfinder is doing on Mars, they'll also be using the Internet to debate plans with their peers, something that NASA scientists also have to do.

If you've been following Global Surveyor's arrival at Mars you may have noted that while NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is once more home for mission management, the MGS spacecraft is actually controlled by Lockheed Martin in Denver, the Mars Orbital Camera is controlled from Malin Space Systems in San Diego, the Thermal Emission Spectrometer by Phil Christensen and our good discuss-lfm friend Ken Edgett at Arizona State University in Tucson, the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter and radio science have science teams equally dispersed. If they can fly spacecraft this way, surely we can make WEATHER WORLDS fly!

Summary of Tasks

1. Complete the
class sign-up form first for each class or group of students that will collect daily observations.

2. For each day you make observations (hopefully every day during the two weeks of data collection), complete one of the daily observation forms and submit before noon time of the day following the date of your observations.