In August this year, Mars will be nearer to Earth than at any time in the past 60,000 years. Taking advantage of this, three space probes have set off for the planet. One of them, Mars Express, is the European Space Agency's contender, and it carries with it Beagle 2, a unique lander no larger than a backyard barbecue, which is the brainchild of Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University. Now schools can hook up with this great adventure, courtesy of New Media's new teaching resource.
The site, www.new-media.co.ukspace, offers for a single log-on price a Mars Express Diary with regular bulletins, up-to-date images and video clips of the mission. The package includes downloadable assemblies, classroom resources and real data from the spacecraft. You and your pupils can ask ESA scientists questions online and look at an archive of key interviews. You can explore online models of how space and gravity work, play with an online rocket, use worksheets and teachers' notes.
You can also get free materials for a school assembly, with slide show and script, or pay for a more elaborate one, Impressions of Mars. For the past few weeks, Roy Askoolum, head of science at Bishop Calloner School, east London, has been using live data from the ESA's Mars probe to teach his Year 7 and Year 10 classes about space, velocity, fuel consumption, the nature of life and the solar system. He has also used the graphics and the images to stimulate vocational GCSE discussions on health and safety, careers, and risk assessment. "It is very engaging as a teaching tool," says Roy Askoolum. "Our girls, who don't get excited by cars, really like the rocket. Using live data to teach acceleration and velocity, they get right into it. On the interactive whiteboard, we find that the software is so enjoyable. We've moved on to demonstrate the gravitational pull against thrust, looking at fuel consumption, and they find it very accessible."
For four months, till Beagle 2 touches down on Christmas Day, schools can be part of Mars Express online. After that, key stages 2 and 3 can still use New Media's Earth and the Sun - an interactive multimedia tool - to explore that mysterious system in which we live.
Mars Express resources for 14 to 16-year-olds: pound;40 per key stage per school, plus VAT; Mars multimedia assembly: pound;25.49. Earth and the Sun: networked version pound;149.95, non-networked CD-Rom, pound;74.95, both plus VAT