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Engineer Helicopters for Mars


Grade Range
Group Size
2-4 students
Active Time
110 minutes
Total Time
110 minutes
Area of Science
Space Exploration
Key Concepts
Gravity, engineering process
Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies


Space exploration poses many challenges. In this lesson, students will explore how flying a helicopter on Mars is different from flying a helicopter on Earth due to the difference in the helicopter's weight on Mars and the thin Martian atmosphere. Students will follow the engineering design process to design and build paper helicopters that might be able to fly on Mars. Before testing their different helicopter designs, students will revisit the concept of gravity, and apply their knowledge to the challenge at hand.

Remote learning adaptation: This lesson plan can be conducted remotely. Students can work independently on the Explore section of the lesson plan using the Student Worksheet as a guide and the video as an introduction. The Engage and Reflect sections can either be dropped entirely, done in writing remotely, or be conducted over a video chat.

Learning Objectives

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle, to construct and/or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints.

Optimize performance of a design by prioritizing criteria, making tradeoffs, testing, revising, and re-testing.

Analyzing and Interpreting Data. Analyze and interpret data to determine similarities and difference in findings.

Engage in Argument from Evidence. Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed upon design criteria.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
PS2.B: Types of Interactions. Gravitational forces are always attractive. There is a gravitational force between any two masses, but it is very small except when one or both of the objects have large mass—e.g., Earth and the sun.

ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solution. Solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it

ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution. Although one design may perform the best across all tests, identifying the characteristics of the design that performed the best in each test provide useful information for the redesign process—that is, some of those characteristics may be incorporated into the new design.

The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions are modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.
Crosscutting Concepts
Systems and System Models. Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy and matter flows within systems.

Influence of Science, Engineering, and Technology on Society and the Natural World. The uses of technologies and limitations on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions.


For each group of 2–4 students:

Groups should have access to the following shared materials:

Background Information for Teachers

This section contains a quick review for teachers of the science and concepts covered in this lesson.

Gravity is the force that pulls objects of mass toward each other. You know from experience that if you drop an object, it falls down toward the ground—not sideways or up—because the gravity created by Earth's large mass pulls the object down. Gravity acts between any two objects that have mass, even two pencils lying on your desk. Because it is such a weak force, you only notice its effects when at least one of the masses is huge, such as the Earth with its mass of 5.97×1024 kg (or 5,970,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg, more than ten trillion times the mass of the world's population). We also know from experience that the gravitational pull on a 5 kg brick is larger than its pull on a 10 g pencil. These examples show how the strength of the force is proportional to the mass of the objects involved. The strength of the gravitational pull also depends on the distance between the objects; the force gets quickly weaker as the objects get farther apart. As an example, the force of Earth pulling rockets down weakens as their distance from Earth increases.

The solar system is well-suited to explore gravity. Many objects in the solar system are massive: the Sun is 333.000 times the mass of Earth, and although the mass of Mars is 10 times less than the mass of Earth, it is still massive. We can study how gravity holds planets in their orbit while they are moving around the Sun. The planets' velocity is just so that their paths form an orbit (Figure 1) and not a path away from the Sun (Figure 2, left), or a spiral toward the Sun (Figure 2, right).

 An illustration of a planet moving in a circular orbit around the Sun. Gravity is shown as a red arrow starting at the planet's edge and pointing to the center of the Sun. The velocity of the planet is shown as an arrow that makes a right angle with the  arrow representing gravity. Image Credit: Sabine De Brabandere, Science Buddies / Science Buddies
Figure 1. Illustration of how the velocity of the planet Earth and the gravitational pull of the Sun on Earth are in a delicate balance that keeps Earth in an orbit around the Sun (this illustration is not drawn to scale).

 Left: illustration of a planet with a velocity too large to stay in orbit around the Sun. The path of the planet curves gently, not enough to create a closed path around the Sun.  Right: illustration of a planet with a velocity too small to stay in orbit around the Sun. The path of the planet curves into the Sun. Image Credit: Sabine De Brabandere, Science Buddies / Science Buddies
Figure 2. Illustration of a planet that moves too fast to be pulled into orbit (left), and of a planet that moves too slowly to stay in orbit (right). (These illustrations are not drawn to scale.)

No matter where you are in the solar system, the gravitational pull of the Sun is working on you. You do not notice the gravitational pull of the Sun on you when you are on Earth for two reasons: your mass is small and the Sun is far away. On Earth, you experience the gravity of Earth because this huge mass is close by. The gravitational pull of the Sun has a noticeable effect on Earth even though Earth is as far from the Sun as you are, because Earth is much more massive.

Objects that fly or rise into the air must overcome gravity of whatever planet they are on. The force generated by gravity on an object is called its weight, and the weight of objects changes depending on the planet they are on (See Table 1). For example, the weight of an object on Mars is 37.7% of the weight of the same object on Earth. This difference is due to the combination of the smaller mass of Mars and its smaller radius. This reduced weight makes it is easier to rise into the air from Mars compared to from Earth.

Planet Mass Relative to the
Mass of Earth
Radius Relative to the
Radius of Earth
Weight as a % of the
Weight on Earth
Mercury 0.055 0.383 37.8
Venus 0.815 0.949 90.7
Earth 1 1 100
Mars 0.107 0.2724 37.7
Jupiter 317.8 11.2 252.8
Saturn 95.2 9.45 106.4
Uranus 14.5 4.01 88.9
Neptune 17.1 3.88 112.5
Table 1. Table listing the mass, radius, and weight on different planets compared to the mass, radius, and weight on Earth.
 Illustration showing a helicopter with a large arrow pointing down toward a large sphere representing Earth, and the same helicopter with a shorter arrow pointing toward a smaller sphere representing Mars. Text indicates that the weight on Earth is larger than the weight on Mars, and that the mass of Earth is larger than the mass of Mars.
Figure 3. The weight of an object on Earth is greater than its weight on Mars.

Does that mean that it is easier to fly a helicopter on Mars? Not necessarily! Helicopters stay in the air because spinning blades generate an upward push called lift. But helicopter blades need air to create lift. They are made such that when air flows over them, a net upward push (lift) is generated. In general, the denser the air, the harder it can press on surfaces. The Martian atmosphere is 100 times less dense than Earth's atmosphere. In this thin atmosphere, the same rotating blades will generate much less lift. Unless the lift on the helicopter is greater than its weight, the helicopter will not fly (see Figure 4). So, despite the lower weight on Mars, it is still harder to make a helicopter fly on Mars.

 A helicopter with an arrow pointing up, labeled lift, and an arrow pointing down, labeled weight. Image Credit: Sabine De Brabandere, Science Buddies / Science Buddies
Figure 4. The helicopter will rise only if the lift created by the rotating blades of a helicopter is greater than the helicopter's weight.

In this lesson, students will build model helicopters out of paper (Figure 5) and investigate how their design can be optimized to make the helicopter fly on Mars. Students will compare their design to NASA's Ingenuity helicopter (Figure 6), a helicopter that was built to help NASA's Perseverance rover explore the Martian surface. The Ingenuity is very lightweight, weighing only 4 pounds (on Earth)! Each blade is about 2 ft. (0.6 m) long, and the blades rotate about 2400 times per minute. Will students take the same approach in their designs?

 Picture of two paper helicopters Image Credit: Sabine De Brabandere, Science Buddies / Science Buddies
Figure 5. Two examples of paper helicopters.

 Lightweight helicopter with four relatively long and large rotors and widespread legs standing on a Martian-like surface. Image Credit: NASA / Public domain
Figure 6. Rendering of NASA's Ingenuity helicopter.

A paper helicopters, unlike a real helicopter, does not have a motor to make its blades spin. Due to its special shape, however, the blades still spin as it falls. When you drop a paper helicopter, it will take a fraction of a second for it to start spinning. Once the paper helicopter spins, it should generate lift, which slows its descent to the ground (Figure 7).

 A drawing of a paper helicopter that is rotating, with arrows pointing up to indicate lift and an arrow pointing down, labeled gravity. Image Credit: Sabine De Brabandere, Science Buddies / Science Buddies
Figure 7. Paper helicopters generate lift as their blades rotate, causing the helicopters to slowly float down.

These paper helicopters do not generate enough lift to fly upward, but the lift helps slow their descent. The more lift they generate, the slower they fall. Students will use the time the helicopter spends in the air as a measure of its performance.

There might not be one single design for a paper helicopter that allows it to descend the slowest. That said, adding some mass, such as a paperclip at the bottom of the helicopter, can stabilize the helicopter, making it perform better. Adding more mass than needed will, however, decrease its performance because of the increased weight. Similarly, longer and wider blades that hit the air at an angle are generally better. These changes to the blades generally create more lift, and as a result, slow down the fall of the paper helicopter more. If you change the dimensions of your paper helicopter too drastically, however, the helicopter may actually become unstable and perform worse. Other factors, like changing the shape or angle of the blades, can also influence lift.

Prep Work (7 minutes)

Engage (35 minutes)

Explore (50 minutes)

Reflect (25 minutes)


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Lesson Plan Variations

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