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Mission Possible : Curiosity’s Flight to Mars
Marsha Davis and Floyd Vest

Mathematics Topic: Various 
Application Areas: Science, Space, Mars 
Prerequisites: Students should be familiar with the
distance formula for points in a plane.
They should know that a circle is the set
of points in a plane equidistant from a
fixed point, the center. Activity 1 could
serve as an introduction to ellipses and
hence no prior knowledge of ellipses is
required. In Activity 2 polar coordinates
are introduced. The polar angles are
measured in radians, which for students
may be a new concept that requires
some additional background.
Materials needed:
Graphing calculators
Access to the Internet (optional) 

 ©2012 Consortium 103  11 pages 

Teacher Notes
On November 26, 2011, the Mars
Science Laboratory (MLS) spacecraft
carrying Curiosity began its trip to
Mars. The orbits of planets as well as
Curiosity’s path from Earth to Mars
can be modeled with ellipses. In
Activity 1 students are introduced to
the definition of an ellipse and learn
relevant terms — major axis, minor
axis and eccentricity. Groundwork is
laid for the derivation of the standard
equation of an ellipse. At the
end of the activity, students apply
Kepler’s First Law to develop models
for the orbits of Earth and Mars. In
Activity 2 the models of the planets’
orbits are polar equations. At the end
of the activity, students learn about
Hohmann transfer orbits – an elliptical
orbit about the sun that takes the
Mars Science Laboratory (with
Curiosity) from Earth to Mars.



