Physics KS3 / KS4: Landing a human on Mars

Tim Peake introduces the Physics behind a human visit to Mars.

After a journey of 8 months the biggest engineering challenge will be landing.

Adam Steltzner is the engineer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working out how it can be done.

He masterminded the landing of the 1000kg Curiosity probe, but a human lander would be around 40,000kg.

This is significantly harder as the mass scales with the length cubed but the drag scales with the length squared.

This means that in the Martian atmosphere the drag will be too small to stop the human lander.

New ideas will be needed such as firing a rocket towards the surface of Mars.

Teacher Notes

Key Stage 3/4

Students could investigate the effect of drag in the classroom.

They could time how long it takes objects to fall a fixed distance.

The objects could have a constant surface area and increase in mass or have a constant mass but increase in surface area.

Sheets of paper or small paper cake cases are suitable in air or ball bearings in a measuring cylinder of treacle or vegetable oil.

Students could investigate the relationship between the side length and surface area of a face or volume of a cube as the side length increases.

Calculations could be performed, graphs drawn and conclusions made.


Students could investigate the effect of drag in the classroom.

Students could be set a challenge to consider what may affect the terminal velocity of an object falling in air.

Students could use dimensional analysis to determine the exact form of the equation and then plan an investigation to check their equation.

Students could then use appropriate log graphs to verify the powers of area and mass.

Curriculum Notes

This clip will be relevant for teaching Physics/Science at KS3 and KS4/GCSE in England Wales and Northern Ireland.

Also at 3rd Level, National 4/National 5 and Higher in Scotland.

More from the series Curriculum Collections: Physics

A scale model of the solar system
Centripetal force - explained
Days, Years and Seasons on Earth
How Halley’s Comet inspired Newton’s Law of Gravity
The Origin of the Northern and Southern Lights
Launching satellites into orbit