Astrobiology Boot Camp

Lesson Plan Created and Developed by: Laura Venner

Grade: 8
Type: Indoor/Outdoor
Duration: 2 days, 3 1/2 hours per day
Subjects: Biology, Geology, Chemistry, Physics, Math, Space Science, Genetics, Engineering
NJCCCS: 5.1.8.A.1, A.2, A.3; B.1, B.2, B.3, B.4; C.1, C.2, C.3; D.1, D.2
5.3.8.A.1, A.2
5.4.8.A.3, A.4, B.1, B.2, C.1, C.2, C.3, D.1, D.2, E.1


Students will (1) gain an understanding of what life is and how we search for life on planetary bodies, other than earth, in our solar system, (2) analyze evidence to formulate a logical hypothesis, (3) determine which planetary body will most likely harbor life based on the evidence provided, (5) draw a conclusion based on analysis, (6) justify their decision in an oral presentation, (7) build and launch a robotic explorer.

Pre-Lesson Plan

Pre-Lesson Vocabulary

Materials needed by specialty

Planetary/Geology Specialist: Pitcher; 5 gallon bucket; Sand/gravel mix; Solo cups; Double sided tape; 3’x3’ slab of cardboard; Play-doh (red, green, & yellow); Clear plastic straws; Cardboard box; Black sharpie Marker; Vinegar; Baking Soda; Aluminum roasting pans; Soil; Hose for water, Microscopes; Mud; pH probes; Petri dishes; Pencils; Blunt forceps; Volcanoes (4); Plastic wrap

Biology/Genetic Specialist: Bananas, Apples, or Strawberries (5 of either fruit would be more than enough); Extraction Buffer (included in the kit), though this can be replaced with detergent; 70% Isopropyl alcohol (stored in freezer); Glass rods; Table salt; Diphenylamine; Hot plates; Glass test tubes

Engineering/Solar Panel Specialist: Multimeters; Mini solar cells; Aluminum Foil; Boxes; Marbles; Navigation and trajectory worksheet

EMR/Chemical Specialist: Thermometers; Spectrum tubes (8); Spectrum Tube Power Supply (1); Spectrum Tube Power Supply Cord (1); Slinkys; Prisms; Bunsen Burners; Test Tubes; Test tube racks; Strikers; Gas tubing; Various chemical solutions (for flame tests); Goggles; Aprons; Spectrometers; Platinum wire or wood splints;

Group project materials needed: Boxes (4); Aluminum foil; Tape; Glue; Scissors; Meatball Stickers (4); American flag stickers (4); Trash  (Each group is responsible for the trash collection for their group)


Active Solar Energy, amino acid, atmosphere, biology, crest, cryomagma, cryovolcano, cyanobacteria, DNA, electromagnetic radiation, electromagnetic spectrum, exoplanets, extraterrestrial, extremophiles, genetics, hydrothermal vents, Kelvin, passive solar energy, photon, radiation, robotic explorer, telemetry, telescope, telerobotics, tidal heating, trough, Wavelength,

Procedure—Day 1

Students will arrive at approximately 10:00 am and be seated according to specialty area. An introductory PowerPoint/lecture will be given at that time and last approximately 25-30 minutes. The students will then be sent to their specialty areas.

Main goals of each specialty

Planetary/Geology Specialist: The geology/planetary specialists will learn about the geological features that exist on planetary objects that we have explored. They will be able to identify the processes that occurred to form the geological features and be able to detect signs that the surface may be amenable to life. They will specifically learn to identify surface features on planets that may indicate the presence of volcanic activity and water on the planet (both existing and past.) The students will be able to identify objects formed in the presence of water: e.g., the gray hematite “blueberries” on Mars. Through analysis, this specialist will characterize the surface of the planet and identify the best areas of the planetary object to be explored. They will also have to determine a valid landing site based on surface features that may indicate the presence of water in addition to surface stability. The instrumentation created by this specialty group should be able to analyze and identify minerals, elements, and soil characteristics of the target object.

Biology/Genetic specialist: The biology/genetic specialist will answer fundamental questions such as: “What is life?” and “What does life as we know it require?” The students should discuss DNA and how life is just a way for DNA to replicate itself. Cyanobacteria should be introduced and the differences of cyanobacteria when compared to other forms of bacteria, in addition to how it changed earth’s atmosphere, should be illuminated. Main topics of discussion for this group should include: How life formed (3 primary hypotheses focusing heavily on extremophiles), life and water, life in extreme environments (hydrothermal vents), the adaptability of life, and DNA. Through analysis, this specialist will identify biomarkers that exist in planetary structures. This group will also help the team determine what type of life might exist on their planetary object based on the data collected. The biology specialist will determine which type of life detecting instrumentation should be placed aboard their robotic explorer.

Engineering/Solar Panel Specialist: The Engineering solar panel specialist will be able to construct the robotic explorer. They will learn about the different types of explorers, their parameters, and the basic components that all explorers possess such as low and high gain antennae. They will be familiar with solar panel design have the ability to design solar panels, sails, or some other solar based construct of their choosing to power their explorers. Through analysis, this specialist will determine which type of robotic explorer will be the best suited to explore the target object. They will build the explorer and the D.A.V.E. (Detailed Analysis of Vital Elements) module contained within the explorer. The engineers will also determine whether of not instrumentation designed by another specialty group is compatible with the group’s robotic explorer.

EMR/Chemical Specialist: The focus of this specialist will be on spectrum analysis. This team will learn how to identify the ingredients for life in planetary objects with dense atmospheres (gas giants), and from soil and ice samples. This specialist will learn about the ways in which chemicals form and what compounds to search for that might be related to life. In addition, this group of specialists will also learn how to identify the chemical composition of elements. Missions that are currently using spectroscopy as a method of identification will be focused on and the students will see actual images of celestial objects taken in different wavelengths of light. Atmospheres of known planets, including earth, will also be discussed. Through analysis, this specialist will analyze the spectrum of the planetary object and suggest which planetary object may be a candidate to support life. The specialist will also provide instrumentation to the explorer that will analyze the spectrum of gaseous atmospheres, soil, liquids, ice, and etcetera.


Planetary/Geology Specialist

Basic Soil Testing: This activity is aimed at teaching students how to conduct the basic scientific tests that geologists perform on soil: soil structure, soil consistency, biomarkers, soil texture, and pH. We will investigate our Meadowlands mud, sand, and soil. The children will be working in teams of two and there will be 2 mud groups, 2 sand groups, and 2 soil groups. All the groups will investigate the color, structure, consistency, biomarkers, texture, and pH of their samples.

Stream Tray Water Flow: This activity aims to demonstrate how water flow alters the landscape of a planetary object.

Lava Layering: This activity is aimed at teaching students how sediments layer over geologic time. By specifically looking at lava eruptions, the students will be able to see the lava flow over previous eruptions, and the students will also be able to take core samples of the lava flows. From these core samples, the students will be able to write the geologic history of the volcano.

Biology/Genetic specialist

Do Onions, Strawberries, and Bananas Have DNA? From EDVO-Kit # S-75- This activity is aimed at teaching students how to extract DNA from an organism.

Testing for the Presence of DNA- from This activity is aimed at teaching students how to test for the presence of DNA from an unknown substance.

Engineering/Solar Panel Specialist

Construction of D.A.V.E. Module: this activity is aimed at teaching students that instrumentation on board robotic explorers is fragile and needs to be protected by various components that are built in to the machinery.

Trajectory activity with marbles: this activity is aimed at teaching students the difficulties involved with launching a robotic explorer from earth to a target object in space.

Navigation and trajectory: this activity is aimed at teaching students about the orbital paths of Earth and Mars through dramatic group demonstrations.

Solar Cells and multimeter: this activity is aimed at teaching students that they can harness energy from the sun and that energy can fuel robotic explorers in space.

EMR/Chemical Specialist

Herschel Experiment: this activity is aimed at teaching students how to perform a version of the experiment of 1800, in which a form of radiation other than visible light was discovered by the famous astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel. I recommend using the following activity: Sensing the Invisible THE HERSCHEL EXPERIMENT

Spectrum analysis using spectrum tubes: this activity is aimed at teaching students how to identify elements in their gaseous form via their spectrum.

Flame tests: This activity is aimed at teaching students that different methods can be used to extract the spectrum of different materials.

Prior to lunch on the first day the students will be placed into their project groups. At this time, the students will receive the “What makes a world habitable?” sheet on page 35 of the educator resource guide, a target object analysis sheet, and three photos of target planetary objects, with information corresponding to those objects, that they must analyze. One target object will have more features conducive to life then the other two (target object C) which will be evident from the answers given to the questions on the target object analysis sheet. In essence, there will be one primary target object and two decoys for the students to analyze. This will ensure that each project group builds a different type of robotic explorer.

Day 2: Working lunch 30 minutes

On the second day of the convocation the students will begin building their robotic explorer which will include an egg in the center (contained inside of the D.A.V.E. module) that their design must be strong enough to protect. Upon completion of the project the students will present their robotic explorers and state their reasons for their specific designs.

Each specialty group must build a model of the instrumentation that they want to include on the explorer and explain the function of that instrumentation as it relates specifically to the experiments they wish to run on their planetary object.

The convocation will conclude with the students launching their robotic explorers followed by direct observation of their sensitive equipment (egg) housed in the D.A.V.E. If their D.A.V.E. module contents have not been damaged the launch will be deemed successful.

Since the 4 prime target objects are different the 4 robotic explorers will be different as well. Mars will have a terrestrial lander/rover; Titan will have a liquid lander/explorer; Europa will have an ice lander/hydrobot, or cryomagmatism explorer; Enceladus will have an orbiter with cryovolcanism detectors that will eventually crash into the moon.