Can we make Mars our Plan(et) B?

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01 Dec 2016

The film The Martian may seem far-fetched but there is actually some truth in it, which young Cantabrians are discovering through a hands-on project called Mission to Mars.

“With climate change and our increasing population growth, moving to Mars is a serious option,” says project lead Miranda Satterthwaite at Ara Institute of Canterbury. Miranda is also one of the lucky few to have flown on NASA’s SOFIA, a plane carrying a huge telescope.

“There is a definite plan to live on Mars and it will start happening when these kids are in their mid-20s," she explains. "NASA is planning on getting humans to Mars in the 2030s, so being part of the international Mars mission is a very real career choice.”

kids building rockets

The children enjoying the workshop.

Mission to Mars has even got attention from NASA itself, where the organisation’s second most senior person Dr Dava Newman volunteered to take part and share her story with the students.

The project is incredibly broad with many facets, which Miranda admits is a challenge to deliver in bite-sized chunks.

“The work combines so many disciplines: from physics to engineering to geology to biology and lots of others," she says. "The kids can use these in many different types of careers and areas of life, not just Mars.”

The workshops have focused on two main themes: how to get to Mars in the first place and how to survive once we have arrived.

There were several events the students took part in, but those that stood out most for them were the hands-on sessions. These culminated in a final workshop and ‘showcase’ event at Evolocity FESTT on the outskirts of Christchurch this week.

Here, rover-like robots were seen alongside tiny model housing with solar panels, 3D-printed units and miniature biodomes containing succulent plants – all of which the students had designed and made from scratch.

The final workshop – assembling and launching rockets – also took place at FESTT.

The rockets were cardboard tubes with wooden nosecones and tails, a fuel cell for launching and a parachute for landing - which all had to be carefully put together by each student.

“I really liked making the rocket most because we were given a rocket each and I could work independently on it,” says Jazmyn, 13, from Burnside High School. “I’m really pleased that my rocket launched ok and it surprised me how high up it went.”

James, 14, from St Thomas of Canterbury College, adds, “The rocket workshop was cool because I enjoyed making all the parts and then putting it all together, and it was great to see it get launched.”

Others said that they enjoyed making the model habitats. They weren’t just building a miniature movie set from The Martian, though. The students had to work out exactly what they would need for a six-month journey to Mars, a one year stay there and a six-month trip back.

“They had a realistic limit for the weight and cost of what they could take with them, so they had to think laterally about what to bring to create a sustainable life on Mars,” says Carl Pavletich from Fab Lab, who collaborated with Ara on the project alongside Kiwibots and Science Alive.

“For example, you might want to take a 3D printer to Mars so that you can make most of the things you need when you get there, rather than try and carry all of the material plus spares,” he explains.

13-year-old Zavier from Hillmorton High School tells us his favourite activity had also been in an earlier workshop, where the students had to design and make a robot themed around the idea of the Curiosity Rover, which takes rock samples from Mars.

“I thought the robotics part was great because we got to make the robots ourselves and control them to pick things up,” he says.

Surprisingly, when asking the group of teens if they wanted to move to Mars, their consensus reply was an unmistakable ‘no’.

This could mean that the students now want to use what they have learnt to take better care of Earth too - so that Mars can become a vacation choice, rather than just our Plan B.

See more photos from the Mission to Mars project on the Ara facebook page

Mission to Mars is supported by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

You can find out about other projects funded through the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund here.