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A Curious Mission: An Analysis of Martian Molecules

Co Authors:

Carly N. Jordan
Department of Biological Sciences
The George Washington University

Elizabeth A. Flaherty
Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
Purdue University

Jonathan F. Prather
Department of Zoology and Physiology
University of Wyoming


In this case study, students play the role of a NASA scientist tasked with analyzing samples of atmosphere and soil collected on Mars as part of the Mars Curiosity Mission. The case study takes place in the future when samples of the Martian atmosphere and surface have been returned to Earth as part of the fictional Curiosity Mission 5. Students identify which elements and molecules are present in those samples and draw the structural formula of each. Next, they use that information to determine which macromolecules could be created, and compare that list to molecules believed to exist on early Earth. Finally, students make a prediction about whether life (as we know it or otherwise) could exist on Mars, and discuss possible experimental designs to test their ideas. This case was developed for an introductory level general biology course. It could also be appropriate as an early review activity in a biochemistry course.

  • Calculate the molecular weight of an atom.
  • Construct molecular diagrams using structural formulas.
  • Determine the type of bond formed between two atoms based on their valence and relative electronegativities.
  • Recall the atomic content of the major macromolecule types.
  • Design an experiment.
  • Analyze and extract data from a scientific figure.
Keywords: Atoms; molecules; macromolecules, electronegativity; bonds; life; experimental design; data analysis; Mars
Topical Area: Scientific method
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Directed, Discussion
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Biochemistry   Chemistry (General)  
Date Posted: 2/10/2014
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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