Ever wanted to be part of a team that lands a spacecraft on Mars, decides the science targets and then actually commands a rover on the surface? Well now's your chance to train for it.

The next best thing can be found at the Victoria Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC) in Melbourne, Australia. Amongst other awesome science learning experiences there, they have a model robotic rover that students can control over the internet, and drive around a "Mars Room".

The only catch, to make this Mars Mission available in New Zealand, is that we need teachers trained on how to use it.

Teacher Professional Development: Robotic Mission to Mars

VSSEC is running a two-day Teacher Professional Learning Program that they are happy to open up to NZ Teachers. It's being held on Tuesday 17th and Wednesday 18th of April, which conveniently is during the NZ school holidays.

The course introduces teachers to the new VSSEC Robotic Mission to Mars program for Year 10 students. Training and resources are provided to support a multi-lesson pre-mission learning experience for students, that covers:

  • Introduction - poses the question ‘Are We Alone?’ and includes a history of Mars exploration, the search for water, and extreme life on Earth. A Google Mars activity introduces students to Martian geography and robotic missions to Mars.
  • Man vs Robot examines the environmental and technical challenges of a Mission to Mars, and compares the requirements and achievements of manned and robotic space missions. Students organise an excursion or a visit by an engineer or scientist.
  • Robotics covers the history of robots and explores the definition of a robot; introduces students to the specifications of a Mars rover and the negotiations between the teams of engineers and scientists who design them. Students undertake a ‘leadership and teamwork’ activity, and design a simple machine contraption.
  • Getting Around looks at the development of mobile robots on Mars, wheel and suspension design; autonomy and hazard avoidance, position knowledge and terrain assessment, path planning, and odometry. Students design a skateboard wheel for different terrains.
  • Powering Up: Energy explores energy forms, transformation and thermodynamics, including energy sources available on Earth and Mars, energy efficiency, and a Mission to Mars’ requirements for different functions (launch, propulsion, and robotic mission objectives).
  • Controlling the Robot examines the principles of navigation, including latitude and longitude, the equation of time, localisation, map making, obstacle avoidance and pathfinding. MER rover navigation. A hand out sheet on robotic arm, sample collection and chemistry lab analysis. Wet chemistry analysis of unknown substances?
  • Sensors explores the human visual system using optical illusions, and the role of robotic sensors, including spectral analysis. Students test their own stereovision, determine their dominant eyes, and create red/green anaglyphs.
  • Site Selection – Students investigate potential Mars landing sites suitable for a robotic mission. They investigate and understand the different engineering and scientific objectives, and the need for teamwork and problem solving using the same case-making and voting process used by the scientists and engineers at NASA. This activity was developed in collaboration with Marion Anderson from the School of Geoscience at Monash University and reflects her experience of participating in the site selection for Spirit and Opportunity and the new Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity.
Controlling the Rovers

Students are allocated mission 'roles' (e.g. Communications) and work as a team to control the rover over the internet. They see 'what the rover sees' through streaming video, as they drive it to their selected science targets. Extra challenges are thrown in along the way, that they have to decide together how to overcome.

They control the robotic arm to manoeuvre the sensor onto the target rock/etc; and then get simulated readings back which they can then analyse.

Students take on different roles in the mission team, each with their own control workstation - and work together to monitor and control the rover, its subsystems and science goals.

Calling NZ Teachers

2012 is a very 'Mars-themed' year for KiwiSpace.

In August of this year, the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity will be landing on the surface of Mars. Can you imagine how more engaging it will be for students as they follow this mission, if they have learned what planning and executing a Mars mission really involves.

And in April/May this year, KiwiSpace is sending a crew of six to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, as part of our KiwiMars 2012 expedition.


We're looking for teachers to help bring this programme to New Zealand. VSSEC has agreed to a train-the-trainer model, so a whole school can benefit by sending one teacher. We're also hoping to facilitate inter-school training.

How to apply

What: Teacher Professional Development: Robotic Mission to Mars
When: 17-18 April 2012
Location: Victoria Space Science Education Centre, Melbourne, AUSTRALIA

More information can be found on the VSSEC website, including:

RSVP by 30 March 2012.


The course cost is $65 AUD, which includes materials, morning tea, lunch and afternoon teas. Obviously New Zealand teachers need to fund flights to Melbourne and accommodation (discounted rates are available at a nearby apartment hotel).

NZ attendees are encouraged to attend the 'Interstate' teachers day (17 April), which includes additional demonstrations of the VSSEC facilities and other courses: (Manned) Mission to Mars, Mission to the Orbiting Space Laboratory, and Serious Gaming and Effective On-line Learning.

The cost for both days is $88 AUD.

Register your interest

You can book directly with VSSEC if you wish to attend, but we ask that anyone interested (or booking) completes the form below, so we can work more closely with you on rolling out this in NZ.

If there is sufficient interest from teachers in NZ, we've casually discussed the idea with VSSEC about holding a NZ-based training session. So if you, or any colleagues can't make it to Australia but would be interested in receiving NZ-based training (either from VSSEC or from another trained teacher), then please advise us below.

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Closing Comments

VSSEC is a stunning facility, and I thoroughly recommend to everyone that you check it out if you are in the Melbourne area. In addition to the Robotic Mission to Mars, they have a manned mission where students dress in space suits and go into the Mars room or staff the 'control centre.' It's great fun, a type of facility I'd love to see in New Zealand.

I personally think it would be fantastic to see schools in NZ using this program. Students would have a blast while they learn, and they would learn to appreciate the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of all those great space and planetary images we see.


Mark Mackay,
Executive Director,