Pathways to Space: A new frontier in astrobiology research and education?
Rovers on the Mars surface at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
In 2010 I led a consortium of four partners to win a large grant from the Australian Space Research Program for an education and research project in the Powerhouse – Australia’s largest science museum. The project is possibly unique in its approach to astrobiology and space robotics research in combination with a high school student focused education project.
The partners in Pathways to Space are the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of NSW, where I am a Senior Research Fellow; the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney; the Powerhouse Museum; and Cisco Systems Australia.
At the heart of the Pathways to Space project is a high school education project to engage with the thousands of senior high school students who will consider the science and engineering challenges of missions to Mars with scientists and engineers, some of who will be carrying out research within the museum on an ongoing basis.
A little bit of Mars – a 140 square metre Mars Yard - has been recreated in the Powerhouse together with two rovers, built by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. The Mars Yard also has an adjacent lab for researchers and PhD students to carry out experiments there until at least mid-2013. The lab is partly glassed-in so members of the public can watch the lab activity as well as watch experiments being carried out in the Mars Yard, which is located in the Turbine Hall in Level 1 of the museum.
The high school students will plan a mission to Mars and learn to drive the rovers in a simulated environment. Later in their one-day experience they will try out their skills in the Mars Yard with the real rovers.
The students are able to link to researchers around the world via a Cisco Systems telepresence video system and to join with other students outside of Sydney also participating in the project. Any school with a standard video system is able to join the project virtually and to drive the rovers from their classroom. Telepresence, together with a very high definition pan and tilt camera in the Mars Yard, allows delivery of high-resolution imagery.
The objective of the three-year project is to encourage students to consider space-related University courses and choose space-related careers. A longitudinal study will be carried out to see how successful this, possibly unique, project is. Substantial longitudinal data on the effectiveness of any science outreach project worldwide are almost non-existent.
Speaking at the opening of Pathways to Space, the Federal Minister for Industry, Innovation, Science, and Research, the Hon Kim Carr said space “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.”
Vice Chancellor of UNSW Professor Fred Hilmer said at the launch, “The real winning in a project is seeing it come to life, seeing it making a contribution, seeing it affect people’s lives, seeing it build knowledge and build understanding, seeing kids in classrooms around the country infected by the opportunities to get involved. That’s the real opportunity here.”
For more details on the project see http://aca.unsw.edu.au.
Watch Pathways to Space in action (less than two-minute video)
Hear about Pathways to Space on the ABC's Science Show(seven-minute audio podcast)