Last week we ran Mars Week at Oxford Area School in the South Island, not far from Christchurch. It was a great week working with amazing teachers and students. Last year the New Zealand Astrobiology Network (NZAN) successfully gained funding and we worked to put the proposal together with the school and with some help from NZAN’s friends at NASA. The aim of the week was to give students at Oxford the chance to do a focused week of educational activities to learn all about Mars, astrobiology, space, teamwork and how a Mars mission might work. A big component of the week was also a link up with the Mars Yard at Australia’s Museum of Applied Arts and Science (MAAS) in Sydney. It was an ambitious task to take a big school through a whole week of space stuff! NZAN is New Zealand’s astrobiology group and has a long history with educational programmes for Kiwis including running two NASA affiliated Spaceward Bound programmes in Rotorua. More recently, NZAN hosted astrobiologists from around the world in Rotorua for the Astrobiology Australasia Meeting 2018 which was a huge success. Milky-Way.Kiwi has a very close association with NZAN, because we are also in NZAN and we love to talk about the things NZAN gets up to.
We arrived in Oxford last Sunday and finished putting the final touches on the programme. This was the first programme of it’s type in New Zealand and we were super lucky, and extremely grateful, to have two scientists along from NASA to lead large chunks of the programme and help us out. We also had also had help from Lillian and Angelica from Hutt Library and the University of Hong Kong respectively. Our hosts for the week were brilliant and the flexibility of the staff and the monumental assistance from the principal was what made the week possible. So what was Mars Week? It was an idea developed by Milky-Way.Kiwi’s very own Haritina (who’s also the Executive Director of NZAN) to give students in New Zealand a little taste of what she experienced at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. It’s a challenge to send students to Utah from New Zealand so what better way than to bring that experience to New Zealand. So this became the basis of the programme.
There were three main parts to the week starting with the scene setting, then the Mars Missions and finally the Mars Yard. We were so very lucky to have Mitch Schulte and Jen Blank from NASA to help with the programme and they led the scene setting by running through the latest happenings on Mars. Astrobiology was the theme for the week with much of the discussion about life on Mars, both microbial and how humans might survive there. After the students had been skilled up on Mars we began the training programme for the Mars Missions. Now this was no easy task, we had 150 students to get through three Mars Missions in three days. One of the school’s fantastic learning facilities was transformed into a busy mission control centre with the crackle of radios and orders being set to astronauts. The astronauts were off-world in the school’s sports field which had been transformed into Mars for the week. Fortunately it was a nice 20 degrees C rather than a Mars like -100 degrees so no one suffered from the cold.
A big focus for the week was also on Geology and this was the basis for a couple of the Mars Missions where astronauts had to survey Mars and report back to Mission Control what they found. The astronauts were busy, they had to map the area, conduct geological surveys and construct communications towers, all the while keeping the ever listening Mission Control informed of what was going on so the Mission Commanders could lead a successful mission.
The only communications that the astronauts had with Mission Control was via a single radio link so the only the most succinct and disciplined radio use was going to lead to mission success. Despite the hardships of communicating across nearly 100 million kilometres of space, Mission Control and the astronauts got through their missions and learned a whole lot more about Mars, themselves and how to work together as a team. By the last mission they were a well oiled machine with sharp communications and robust plans leading to well organised and focused missions.
The final aspect for the week was the link up with the Mars Yard in Sydney. This involved the students driving a real rover in Australia from Oxford. The rover was Mawson, similar looking to Opportunity, though somewhat faster! The Mars Yard had a number of very interesting finds for the students to discover including one of Australia largest meteorites and a stromatolite. It was hard work for the students to learn how to operate and then conduct a mission around the Mars Yard but they were up to the challenge and all did a fantastic job. The final group managed to drive around the whole yard and photograph about six of the features gaining them plenty of accolades from the Mars Yard staff. A big thanks to the MAAS in Sydney for giving the students of Oxford such a great opportunity.
The week seemed to fly by and before we knew it the last of the astronauts had returned to Earth and Mawson had been parked up at the Mars Yard. What an amazing week to see so many students getting involved and learning about Mars. Oxford Area School has some fantastic Mission Commanders who will, I’m sure, someday be commanding their own space missions. The school gave us an awesome farewell and we will all miss the staff and students of Oxford Area School. And, of course, we can’t write about Mars Week at Oxford without making a special mention of the Principal of Oxford Area School, Mike Hart, without whose support and enthusiasm we would not have been able to do it.
If you’re interested in hosting a Mars Mission at your school, then get in contact we’d love to help.
Some Media coverage from our Mars Mission
it screened on Dunedin Television on Friday evening – half way through the bulletin – see: http://www.channel39.co.nz/
NCN News (scroll to page 10)