Spacecraft Landers

Overview of Spacecraft Landers

The first man made object to land on a surface, other then the Earth, was Lunik 2. This Russian impact satellite was designed with sensors to measure radiation and magnetic fields on the way to the Moon, but it was not designed to function after impact with the Moons surface.

In 1966 Lunar 9 successfully made a controlled decent to the surface of the Moon, this eggs shaped probe then opened to reveal a camera and radio antenna.

Since 1966 there have been 40 successful soft landings on non-terrestrial planetary bodies, that returned scientific or photographic data to the Earth, these include

  • 10 successful landings on Venus
  • 7 successful landings on Mars
  • 19 successful landings on the Earths Moon, of which 9 returned samples (6 manned returns and 3 robotic sample returns)
  • 1 to Titan, one of Saturn’s Moons (This was designed to be the first floating lander)
  • 2 to asteroids Eros and Itokawa, the Itokawa lander also returned a small amount of dust from the Asteroids surface
  • 1 to a Comet, the Philae lander which was part of the Rosetta mission that ended in 2016

Most of these are Landers, but some are Planetary Rovers which will be looked at in more detail in our next lesson.

Click Here to view the Data Sheet for Successful Lander & Rovers

Mars Express: Beagle 2 Lander

Introducing Spacecraft Landers with the example of the UK developed Beagle 2 and its PAW (Position Adjustable Workbench)

Mars Express was launched in 2003, developed by a consortium of 15 European countries and the USA and launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket. The Beagle 2 lander was designed to look for life signs in Mars soil and to monitor Martian weather. The Beagle 2 lander had many parts and functions, but this activity will focus on its PAW (Position Adjustable Workbench) a collection of sensors attached to a robotic arm powered by various motors.

Beagle 2 – PAW Sensors

Beagle's Position Adjustable Workbench

In order to interact with our environment we all must have ways to sense it. This is very important when doing scientific investigations or when making automated machines.

For example when you travel on a bus, it picks you up and takes you to your stop.

Automated Bus Stop Model

Think about what sensors an automated Bus would need in order to do the same task without a human driver.

Things to Consider

How many times do the Buses wheels turn? How large are the Buses Wheels? How does it know when to Stop and Go? How does it know not to break the speed limit? How does it know it is facing the right direction?

When designing a Robot all of these details and more need to be considered. The maths we calculate unconsciously during our daily activities need to be calculated for a robot to do the same things that we take for granted.

More information about Beagle 2

Beagle 2 was named, by Professor Collin Pillinger and his team at the Open University and in partnership with Leicester University, after the ship (HMS Beagle) that Charles Darwin was a passenger on when he developed his theories on evolution.

The Mars probe included sensors to search for life on Mars and is a good example of using sensors and motors to conduct scientific missions.

Watch the ESA Video for Mars Express – Beagle 2

In order to learn about automated vehicles, we can use Robotics kits such as those produced by LEGO Education, let’s investigate a LEGO Lander.

Look at a LEGO Spacecraft Lander

EV3's PAW

LEGO Education have produced equipment for building robots, which can be used to simulate a Mars lander such as Beagle 2. Its sensors measure different things but are still there to allow the Robot to interact with the world around it.

If sent to Mars we would be able to find out the temperature of the Mars environment around the lander and see what colour the surface of Mars is. We can use LEGO and our own bodies to learn about Mars Landers and why humans send robots into Space.

Think About the Landing

Before a Lander or Rover can start its mission it needs to get from an orbiter to the planetary surface, this can be a difficult process having to take into account the atmospheric and gravitational forces involved in landing. A good activity would be to investigate how you would safely land on the Earth and compare this to the forces involved on other planets.

Try the Game from the KHAN Academy. KHANAcademy.org – Can you safely land on another planet?

Power Consumption

The Lego lander has a rechargeable battery which is drained by using the robots motors and sensors.  Beagle also had a rechargeable battery and a set of solar panels to charge it during the Mars day. On Earth we can charge a rover by plugging it into the mains, on other planets it would be more difficult. If we were to charge the lander on Earth with Solar Panels, what would be need to consider? On other planets the amount of sunlight will vary depending on the atmosphere of the planet and how far it is from our Sun, for this reason nuclear power is sometimes used.

Further Materials, Resources & Information

Below you will find more resources and external websites related to this lesson.

  • DKfindout.com – Can you tell Sputnik from a space shuttle? Do you know which machine first photographed the dark side of the Moon? Test your knowledge of early space probes in this quick 10-question quiz!
  • beagle2.open.ac.uk – The Beagle 2 project is the British led effort to land on Mars as part of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Mission, launched in June 2003.
  • KHANAcademy.org – Can you safely land on another planet?
  • Climatekids.nasa.gov/power-up – Capture clean energy from the wind and the Sun to produce enough electricity to run the town.

Full STEAM Ahead – Space Exploration Education Grant

UK Space AgencyThis lesson has been produced as part of the Full STEAM Ahead Project with the UK Space Agency. We are one of eight organisations across the UK to be awarded to deliver and produce exciting new education outreach activities and projects. The UK Space Agency are delighted to be able to support these projects, which represent a diverse selection of cross-curricular activities that meet it’s education objectives in encouraging children to take up STEAM subjects, raise awareness of careers in space-related areas, and raise awareness of the UK’s exploration programme.


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