Compare the topography of Earth and Mars with Microsoft Worldwide Telescope


In this lesson, students gain a new perspective about planet Earth using a free tool called Microsoft Worldwide Telescope (WWT) -- which enables your computer to function as a virtual telescope.


  • Students will understand the position of earth in the solar system.
  • Students will learn the topography of Earth and Mars.

Learning Outcomes

  • Students will take a teacher-led interactive tour of the topography of two planets in our solar system, Earth and Mars.
  • During the tours, students will collect the names and key information about the solar system, land and water masses, and distinctive features of each planet on the Student Handout.
  • Students will explore on their own one topographical feature of both Earth and Mars using the WWT, research the features, and compare the two.
  • Students will create an Office PowerPoint presentation about the topography of Earth and Mars.

Lesson procedure


In this lesson we are going to explore and compare the topography of Earth and Mars. [First, talk about the difference between geography and topography. Geography comes from two Greek words: geo, which means earth, and graphia, which means description or writing. So geography is any writing about or description of the Earth.]

Topography comes from two Greek words also: topos and graphia.

You already know what graphia means: writing or description. Topos means "place." So the basic definition of topography is "any writing or description about place."

So what's the difference between geography and topography?

Geography focuses only on the planet Earth. We can't talk about the geography of Saturn, for example. Topography, by contrast, is the study of any place in our universe, including other planets in our solar system.

Geography includes any description of the Earth, including not only its land and the features of that land, but also its inhabitants, climate, and all natural and historical events that occur on Earth.

Topography, instead, focuses on studying and mapping the surface shape and features of places, such as how much water and land covers the surface of a planet, what kind of land it is, whether there are mountains, and so on. Has anyone seen a topographic map? These maps show the features of the surface, such as the elevation of mountains. [Show students a flat topographical map and a relief topographic map.]

Summing up: Topography covers all planets, including Earth, and it studies only the surface of the planet. Geography refers only to the land of Earth and it includes a study of the people who live there.

We are going on a virtual tour of the topography first of Earth and then of Mars using the WorldWide Telescope (WWT), virtualization software that combines many kinds of scientific data to give you an interactive, 3-D view of our universe. As we tour, listen for the information asked for on the Student Handout and fill it in. Once we have finished our tour together, you will have an opportunity to use the WWT to explore one topographical feature of Earth and one of Mars by yourself, compare them, and present your findings.

Note: You can adjust this lesson for your student's ages and needs.

Teacher Tips

  • On the level

    The most defining topographical difference between Earth and Mars is water. See if students know how much of the Earth’s surface is water and how much is land? (Answer: 29.22 percent is land; 70.78 percent is water). Next discuss the concept of sea level.

  • Compare Earth

    Does Earth have the biggest, best attributes in every topographical category? Ask your students where the highest known mountain is in the Solar System. Olympus Mons on Mars is 27 kilometers (around 16.7 miles) high: three times higher than Mount Everest.

Student activity

Follow the steps below to guide your students through this lesson plan.

Note teachers: Please download the student activity handouts located in the sidebar under Software and Materials Needed, for additional details about the main activities for this lesson plan.
  • Step 1: "Tour the solar system"
  • Step 2: "Tour Earth's surface"
  • Step 3: "Tour the surface of Mars"
  • Step 4: "Visit and research one topographical feature of both Earth and Mars"
  • Step 5: "Create a Microsoft Office PowerPoint presentation comparing the topography of Earth and Mars​"

Lesson extension activities

Ask students to write a report comparing the melting of Earth's polar ice caps and the melting of the ice caps on Mars.

Ask students to research Mount Everest and Olympus Mons, comparing how both mountains were created.

Ask students to research topographical maps of Earth and Mars and study how these maps represent surface data. Good sites to begin are:

  • Topographic maps
  • Topographic map of Mars
  • Topographic map of Earth


Evaluate students on the following:

  • Participation in the tours/discussions.
  • The thoroughness and accuracy of their Student Handouts.
  • Thoroughness, accuracy, aptness of comparison, and design of their Microsoft Office PowerPoint presentation.