Kepler’s Space Program: Mission to Mars


Kendra Gardner, Grace Warren, Isabella Taylana

Faculty Mentor(s)

Bruce Palmquist (Physics)


Since 1997, human perseverance has led to multiple explorations of the Martian surface. Now, through a combination of the free programs Octave and Worldwide Telescope, high school math and science students have the opportunity to explore Mars for themselves. This interactive, educational activity introduces Kepler’s Third Law of Planetary Motion and leads students through simplified versions of the real calculations that scientists use to transport rovers from Earth to Mars. Integrated within the activity are visual representations of Mars, along with some defining features and important locations on the surface of the Red Planet. There are four possible landing sites at the end of the activity, and each student will have the opportunity to calculate their way to the location that sparks their curiosity the most. In addition to using the Octave program, students will track information on a guided worksheet, which will also assist the student in their calculations. In the spirit of providing equal access to all students, this free and open source activity is intended to engage large groups of high school students from all backgrounds in the areas of astronomy, physics, and mathematics. Students who complete this activity will have met the NGSS standard, HS-ESS1-4: Use mathematical or computational representations to predict the motion of orbiting objects in the solar system.

Keywords: Kepler’s Third Law, Mars, STEM Education


11 thoughts on “Kepler’s Space Program: Mission to Mars”

  1. Hey guys, this is such a fun presentation! It gives me heavy Kerbal Space Program vibes, which I think is a good thing! I love the quality of the presentation itself, super fun and funky and fresh. Beyond that, I think the thing I’d like to see most is how students enjoy/experience the program. I’m sure it’s a blast but I’d love to see what an entire classroom thinks of it. Super sweet stuff though and I hope it gets some good use in the future!

    1. Henry,
      Fun fact: I had no clue that Kerbal Space Program was a think until I tried to search my own project on YouTube. I am currently working with my own high school physics teacher to get an audience of students to test the program out. So, if we get some feedback, I will be sure to let you know how students received it!

  2. Really great project and presentation! I would love to learn more about how you programmed this model. What age group do you suggest this activity for? Also, how long does it take a student to complete?

    1. Dr. Snowden,
      This activity is recommended for high school math and science students – grades 9-12. The highest level of mathematics required is algebra. As far as time to complete, I have not had the opportunity to get feedback from a high school student or a class of high school students to test this out. For those that I asked to do a test-run, I believe it took them about an hour to complete. However, my ‘test’ group consisted of mostly undergraduate physics students. Therefore, I broke the activity/program into two parts so that the students can complete the activity over a two-class period (approximately 100 minutes) and are not required to re-enter their answers from the day before.

      As far as the programming goes, I focused mostly on making the program user-friendly and did not utilize a ton of fancy functions. The main functions I used within the program were fprintf() to print information or instructions to the command window, the switch() function to give options to students or to anticipate what they may input for an answer, and the inputdlg() function to take in user input and process it to give a response which best suits the input that was given. The code is fully accessible from the file download on the Teach STEM Wix site ( if you’d like to take a look at it!

      1. Hi Kendra,
        I think I will. We have been doing a similar orbit dynamics analysis in the explore mars camp using a python code, but your interface looks a lot more user-friendly. I might have to borrow it. 🙂

  3. I like that you used the old 1900-1960 recruitment song. That definitely made me laugh. This program looks really cool to use. This program could probably help SpaceX astronauts train to go to Mars. Great presentation!!! You should pitch this to Elon Musk. You might be able to make a fortune off of this.

    1. Nyal, Thank you! We wanted our whole activity to have an upbeat, inspirational feel to get students engaged in the topic.

  4. I think this is a lovely project for the demographic it is presented for. I know I would have personally adored such an assignment back then. I know this is designed for mars specific scenarios, do you think it could be beneficial to have additional outlets after the main assignment that or more generic and a step up in complexity? I know It would be for a smaller subset of individuals, though as the program sources used are free it would be nice to see an added step for those with the interest (even if its completely separate piece) that helps with further understanding. I could see this even just being enough to allow individual research without being completely lost/ intimated by the physics they would find.

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