Media Backgrounder: Pathways to Space

A mission to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers through a unique education and research program on space robotics and the search for life on Mars.

Pathways to Space is a new, federally-funded school education and university research project at the Powerhouse Museum. 

During this three-year project several thousand secondary school students will come into contact with real research into space science and robotics either directly in the museum or via telepresence for students outside Sydney.

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 Systems Australia and the Powerhouse Museum.  Support for the project has also been provided by AARNET, the Australian Academic Research Network.

The project is partly funded by a grant of almost $1 million from the Australian Space Research Program of the Commonwealth Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, with matching in-kind contributions from the four consortium members.

Pathways to Space has multiple aims but its two primary objectives are: (1) To provide skilled scientific and technical professionals to participate in a future emerging space science and engineering industry, by encouraging interested students to go on to space-related courses and careers. (2) To undertake a three year longitudinal study of the participating school students to investigate the effectiveness of educational outreach that brings students into contact with practising scientists and engineers in influencing their decision to choose science and engineering courses and careers.

Pathways to Space has several components: the Mars Yard, which simulates the surface of the planet Mars, where two robotic rovers (one student driven, the other university research driven) will operate; a robotics research and science laboratory adjacent to the Mars Yard; and a school education program run in the Museum’s Thinkspace digital studios with telepresence links to the Universities of NSW and Sydney and, potentially, space research institutions worldwide.

 Year 10-12 students participating in Pathways to Space will experience a one-day program at the Powerhouse Museum focused on planning and executing a Mars rover mission for astrobiology research. This serves as an exciting example of how science learned in the classroom is applied in real world science and engineering research.

From ‘Mission Control’ in the Thinkspace studios, students will firstly plan a mission to land a rover on Mars to assess whether it has, or ever did have, microbial life. They will select a landing site and consider all the science and engineering elements involved in carrying out a successful mission.

Students will use specially designed software to learn how to drive the Scout mini-rover in the Mars Yard, and then test their skills and Mars mission plan by actually operating the Scout rover in the Mars Yard.

 Why a student mission to search for life on Mars? Finding an example of past or present life elsewhere in the solar system contributes to some of the big questions in science: How did life get started on Earth? What is life’s future on Earth? Are we alone in the universe?

 Cisco TelePresence facilities in the Thinkspace studios will allow students in regional schools to participate in Pathways to Space remotely from their classroom with state-of-the-art, immersive and life-like, high-definition video conferencing technology that realistically conveys the body language and human elements critical to the interactive nature of a classroom. The virtual experience link is provided by the NSW Department of Education’s Connected Classrooms network, which enables students from schools throughout Australia to participate.

The Year 10 student experience is linked to the Stage 5 Science Syllabus of the NSW school curriculum. The Year 11/12 program will be offered to students who have completed the space physics component of the NSW science curriculum. This more specialised program will focus on the physics of getting to Mars and landing there, in addition to using the rover driving software and experimenting in the Mars Yard.

 The Mars Yard features several genuine artefacts: an Australian meteorite, representing the meteorites that NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers have found on the Martian surface; and two examples of fossilised stromatolites-ancient microbial life forms that represent the type of early life that may have evolved on Mars. The best examples of living and fossilised stromatolites are found in Shark Bay and the Pilbara in Western Australia.

 A small sample of a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite, a type known to contain organic compounds, is also displayed in a showcase beside the Mars Yard. Such meteorites suggest that the building blocks of life are present elsewhere in the solar system.

 The science and robotics research being carried out in the Mars Yard is focussed on defining the instructions (rules) that would allow a rover camera to distinguish between a layered sedimentary rock and a layered stromatolite. This is a challenge since no two rocks and no two stromatolites are exactly alike. A successful outcome would provide future Mars rover missions with a way of detecting past life on Mars.

Other research being carried out in the Mars Yard and its lab includes research on rover navigation and other robotics research by PhD students and human computer interaction studies by high-level researchers. This research has important down to Earth applications, especially in the mining and agricultural industries.

 Australia already has some of its technology on Mars. The current Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity are partly powered by diamond substrate computing chips designed and manufactured in Sydney.

 Schools can take part in Pathways to Space by visiting http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/pathwaystospace

Pathways to Space will accommodate one school group with a maximum of 28 students each day, two days a week on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Participation is free for school students in years 10, 11 and 12.  Bookings essential.  For further school enquiries about Pathways to Space contact email: thinkspace@phm.gov.au or Peter Mahony, Thinkspace Manager, tel: 9217 0392.

About the consortium partners:

The Australian Centre for Astrobiology (Schools of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences and Physics) at the University of New South Wales is one of only two international astrobiology research institutions with Associate Membership of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

 The Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney is the largest of its kind in the world.

Cisco has contributed its expertise and TelePresence technology because of its commitment to providing highly engaging ‘connected learning’ experiences that help prepare students for success in the global, internet-based economy.

 The Powerhouse Museum, one of Australia’s premier museums of science and technology, is currently undertaking a redevelopment of its galleries with a plan to create a number of ‘living laboratories’. Based on partnerships with research, education and other organisations, these laboratories will allow visitors to engage and participate directly with researchers, scientists, designers and artists.  Pathways to Space is an exemplar.

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Media information, images or interviews:

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