31 March 2011: A new, federally-funded education and research project Pathways to Space featuring a spectacular Mars research exhibit where experimental Mars rovers will operate, was launched today at the Powerhouse Museum by the Honourable Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

The project is supported under the Federal Government’s Australian Space Research Program, a SuperScience initiative to develop Australia’s niche space capabilities.

Combining a school education program with robotics, astrobiology and science education research, this project will expose thousands of students to real science and engineering in action. Its aim is to encourage students to consider science and engineering university courses, enabling them to become future participants in an emerging Australian space program.

“We endured the Queensland floods with the aid of satellites. We cannot respond to climate change without the data they provide. And we rely every day on technologies pioneered by and for astronomers, from Wi-Fi to GPS,” Senator Carr said.

“This is an industry of the future, and the Australian Government is determined to see our young people take up the opportunities we have made possible through our investments in space research.”

Pathways to Space has been developed by a consortium of partners led by the University of New South Wales (Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Schools of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, and Physics), in conjunction with the University of Sydney (Australian Centre for Field Robotics), Cisco and the Powerhouse Museum.

School students in Years 10-12 will have the unique opportunity to plan and execute a simulated robotic mission to Mars in association with university researchers working on real space science and engineering goals. They will have access to astrobiologists and robotics engineers in Australia and overseas via the high-definition video conferencing technology, Cisco TelePresence, in the Museum’s Thinkspace digital studios, as they consider the science and engineering factors critical to the success of a Mars mission. Specially created software will allow the students to drive a virtual Mars rover before actually controlling one of the two roving vehicles in the Mars Yard.

Students unable to visit the Powerhouse will still be able to participate in the project, using the Cisco TelePresence facility via the NSW Department of Education ‘Connected Classrooms’ network.

“This is a highly innovative educational opportunity that offers school students a unique, practical experience in space exploration in a realistic Mars-replicated environment at the Museum.  We look forward to seeing the students’ responses and nurturing a new breed of scientists and engineers for our space industry,” said Dr Dawn Casey, Director, Powerhouse Museum.

The 140 square metre Mars Yard has been created with materials closely resembling those actually found on Mars. It also features several genuine artefacts – an Australian meteorite (similar to those found by NASA’s rovers on Mars) and examples of fossilised stromatolites (a form of ancient microbial life that may eventually be found on Mars). 

In addition to offering a unique experience for students, Pathways to Space researchers will be carrying out a study to discover the long-term effectiveness of the project and whether it achieves its goal of nurturing a future pool of scientific and technical skills.

“For the first time in Australia, we have a chance to engage students and their teachers in real research as part of a major educational outreach project as well as the opportunity to measure the results of placing ongoing science and engineering research in a significant public space,” said Dr Carol Oliver, Project Director, University of New South Wales.

“We cannot afford to squander the talents and ambitions of our young people,” Senator Carr said. “Space research was a vital contributor to the advanced computational and communications technology of our time – and it is fitting that we use that technology to make all Australians part of this incredible age of space discovery.”


Media information, images or interviews:

Mandy Campbell, Powerhouse Museum, Tel: 02 9217 0551/0422 929 927 or mandyca@phm.gov.au