Jump to main content

Mars Rover Obstacle Course

2 reviews


Active Time
10-20 minutes
Total Project Time
10-20 minutes
Key Concepts
Navigation, programming
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
The Mars curiosity rover.


How do scientists and engineers control robots that drive around other planets millions of miles away? It's nowhere near as easy as driving a toy remote-control car here on Earth. In this activity you will experience some of the challenges you face when driving a "robot" that you can't see!

This activity is not recommended for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.


  • Two volunteers
  • Two adjacent rooms
  • Large objects to serve as obstacles, such as furniture or boxes
  • Paper and pencil
  • Two smartphones or tablets with video chat capabilities (optional)

Prep Work

  1. One of your volunteers will be walking around with their eyes closed in this activity. Remove any potentially hazardous obstacles from one of the rooms, such as sharp objects or electrical cords they could trip over.
  2. Plan a path through this room yourself, from a start location to a finish location. For example, if the room has two doors and a table in the middle, plan how to walk from one door, around the table, and to the other door. Write down exact instructions for following this path. Give each command a number. For example, "1) Take one step forward. 2) Turn right. 3) Take two steps forward. 4) Turn left …."
  3. You will be the rover "operator." Assign roles to your two volunteers. One of them will be the "rover," and one will be the "messenger."


  1. Place the "rover" at the start location in the first room. This person now has to close their eyes and keep them closed. No peeking!
  2. Go into the other room with the messenger. Make sure you can't see the rover.
  3. Whisper your first command to the messenger. Make sure you are quiet enough that the rover can't hear you.
  4. The messenger should now walk (not run) to the other room and tell the command to the rover. The rover should follow the command exactly but have them be careful to walk very slowly (to avoid any stubbed toes or bumped shins). The messenger should stay in the room with the rover while the rover is moving.
  5. The messenger should then return to you to get the next command and repeat the process. You aren't allowed to change the commands—stick to what you wrote down!
  6. Keep sending commands, one at a time, until the rover reaches the finish location or until it "crashes" (for example, by bumping into a piece of furniture or a wall).
  7. If your rover made it to the finish, congratulations! Now you can switch roles or try adding more obstacles to make the path longer or more complicated. How complicated can you make the path before your rover crashes?
  8. If your rover crashed, don't worry! Talk to your volunteers to try and figure out what went wrong. For example, maybe your steps aren't the same size. In that case you might need to modify your directions to say, "take big steps" or "take small steps," then try again. How many tries does it take to get your rover from start to finish without crashing?

What Happened?

You might find this activity surprisingly difficult at first! It might be tempting to cheat and modify your commands halfway through, or the rover might want to open their eyes. You might run into problems, such as the rover's steps being bigger or smaller than yours, or the rover not making exactly 90-degree turns. It's important to "calibrate" the rover's motions so you get the results you expect when you issue commands. The same concept applies to the real Mars rovers: to carefully plan a path, scientists need to know exactly how far they will move or turn when they issue a command. Read the Digging Deeper section to learn more about real robots on Mars!

Digging Deeper

The U.S. has landed four robotic rovers on Mars: Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, and Curiosity in 2012. These rovers were given more and more autonomy, meaning they are able to make some decisions on their own about how to drive around obstacles. They do this by using onboard sensors (such as cameras and lasers) that can detect obstacles and computers to interpret what they see. Scientists on Earth, however, still need to send the rovers commands about where to go. At first you might think this is just like driving a remote-control car, but there's a problem: Mars is very far away from Earth. It's so far away that even the speed of light isn't fast enough for commands to get there without a delay. Depending on where the planets are as they orbit the sun it can take anywhere between eight and 20 minutes for a signal to reach Mars from Earth. That means up to 40 minutes round-trip to send a command to the rover and get a response! Can you imagine playing a video game if you had to wait 40 minutes to see what happened every time you pushed a button on the controller?

Because of this delay, when scientists are driving the rover they need to upload a series of commands all at once to make sure the rover doesn't crash. This requires carefully planning out a path in advance, just like you did in this activity.

icon scientific method

Ask an Expert

Curious about the science? Post your question for our scientists.

For Further Exploration

  • If you have two phones or tablets with a video-chat application available, have the rover volunteer hold one so you can see what's in front of them (while still keeping their eyes closed). Now you can see what the rover sees. Instead of writing down all your commands in advance, issue them one at a time based on what you see through the video chat. In addition to movement commands you can also issue commands to control the camera, like "point the camera down." Does this make navigating easier or harder?


    STEM Activity
    3 reviews
    Do words like "general relativity", "gravity well", and "space-time continuum" sound scary? Don't worry, you don't have to be Albert Einstein to understand them! Try this fun activity to learn about these concepts and black holes, using some common household materials. Read more
    STEM Activity
    If you have ever watched a rocket launch on TV, you might have noticed that rockets have multiple stages. Some parts of the rocket fall off and burn up in the atmosphere whereas the rest of the rocket keeps going. Why does this happen? Try this activity to find out and build your own two-stage rocket using balloons! Read more
    STEM Activity
    32 reviews
    Have you ever enjoyed watching something lift off into the air, like fireworks at a show or a spacecraft launching? It can be an amazing experience. It is thrilling to see something lift off against Earth's gravity. To launch a spacecraft, its rockets give it a strong push that is due to a chemical reaction. This means that every time you see a spacecraft launch, you are watching chemistry at work. In this activity you will get to blast an object into the air using two simple… Read more


Career Profile
Have you watched "The Transformers" cartoon series or seen the "Transformers" movies? Both shows are about how good and evil robots fight each other and the humans who get in the middle. Many TV shows and movies show robots and humans interacting with each other. While this is, at present, fantasy, in real life robots play a helpful role. Robots do jobs that can be dangerous for humans. For example, some robots defuse landmines in war-stricken countries; others work in harsh environments like… Read more
Career Profile
Computers are essential tools in the modern world, handling everything from traffic control, car welding, movie animation, shipping, aircraft design, and social networking to book publishing, business management, music mixing, health care, agriculture, and online shopping. Computer programmers are the people who write the instructions that tell computers what to do. Read more
Career Profile
Have you tried to install new video-game software or connect a new printer to your computer? Doing something like this can be a little scary because of concerns about what may happen to your computer if you don't do it properly. So you read the instructions pamphlet that came with the software or printer and follow it step by step. Thankfully, the instructions are clear and you are successful with the installation! You can credit a technical writer for creating those helpful directions that… Read more


Science Buddies |
Was this review helpful?

Free science fair projects.