NASA backs Ara for Mission to Mars

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25 May 2016

Rover on MarsRobotics will play an important role in the colonisation of Mars. Image provided by NASA.

NASA is backing Ara Institute of Canterbury's Mission to Mars programme for Year 9 and 10 students. The United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration is providing educational resources and experts, while the US and New Zealand governments are funding Ara to provide holiday courses designed to develop knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The programme is aimed to give students a taste of the core skills that would be necessary to support NASA missions for the 21st century.

"We're very excited to have this opportunity to give students practical STEM training with support from NASA," Ara STEM Coordinator Miranda Satterthwaite says.

Mission to Mars will create interest in STEM subjects

Ara will be using the Mission to Mars programme as a way of attracting young people who might otherwise lose interest in science to study STEM subjects and is focused on presenting the Mission to Mars programme to Māori and Pasifika students.

"It's kind of out there. Adults will be saying that you can't fly to Mars or you can't colonise Mars, but now there is good science to show that we can do this, and our students will be able to tell you exactly how," Satterthwaite says.

The Mission to Mars programme creates a stepping stone for a range of programmes that are already offered at Ara and will attract people who are looking for something different in their education.

"While the focus is on subjects that prepare professionals for the Mission to Mars programme they provide students with a taste of the qualifications that are already on offer at Ara."

For example learning modules for rocketry basics give students the opportunity to see what it would be like to study for the Bachelor of Engineering Technology, modules for travelling through space lead to the New Zealand Certificate in Applied Science and covers human nutrition, sports science and soft skills.

While Mars has long been the subject of science fiction, fiction has slowly crept closer and closer to fact with the recent discovery of water on Mars by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

"We are now looking at the very real possibility of terraforming Mars. There was once an atmosphere and flowing water there, this can be re-established to support species that can endure harsh conditions," Satterthwaite says.

Mars similar to Earth

Although Mars is further away from the Sun than Earth, it shows several features that are similar to Earth including the presence of water cut valleys, sitting off-kilter (an axis of 19 degrees on Mars as opposed to 23 degrees on Earth) creating a seasonal cycle similar to Earth's, and polar ice caps. The limited atmosphere and huge variation of temperature (from -143 degrees Celsius to 35 degrees as opposed to -89 to 57 degrees on Earth) make the planet initially a hostile and forbidding territory for colonisation.

"The lack of atmosphere means the planet is currently bombarded with all sorts of radiation including X-rays and gamma rays which are lethal to humans."

Nonetheless, simulations have shown that lichens found on Earth could grow on the Red Planet – establishing the first biological life necessary to establish an atmosphere.

Habitat design key to surviving on Mars

The need to protect settlers from the environment makes habitat design and the use of robotics critical for any attempt to settle on the planet. Habitat design is one of the courses which will lead towards qualifications in engineering and architectural studies with a focus on Computer Aided Design (CAD).

According to FabLab Director Carl Pavletich, who will be providing technical and training support to Ara, NASA's Mission to Mars had only become possible with the advent of 3-D printing technology.

"One of the challenges of NASA's Mars Mission is that we cannot carry wood or steel to Mars for construction, so a lot of research is going into composites and alloys that can be found and processed on Mars to create habitats," Pavletich says.

Meanwhile, robotic support necessary to carry out tasks in the Martian environment as the Mars Rover does will also be taught, which could later lead to a Bachelor in Engineering Technology.

"When people think of 3-D printing they often think of large stationary blocks of equipment. What we are looking at is rovers or mobile robots that can build structures adding a layer at a time. The construction algorithms use honeycomb designs which make these structures extremely strong," Pavletich says.

While much of the research and training is aimed at establishing life on Mars, a lot of space research leads to improvements for life on Earth.

"If we can learn to use the limited resources available on Mars, then we will be able to be much more sustainable on Earth. This includes greater localisation," Satterthwaite says.

In addition to funding, the collaboration with NASA offers other advantages to Ara and Ara students.

"NASA scientists fly through Christchurch quite regularly as they go to Antarctica and so we will have lots of opportunities to host NASA scientists for lectures, seminars and workshops."

People can register their interest in the Mission to Mars programme by sending an email to

The Red Planet The discovery of water on Mars has opened the path for future research on colonisation.