The Robotic Mission to Mars Pre-Mission program contains an introduction, 6 units of study and site selection, after which students prepare for an on-line mission, where they remotely control a rover on the VSSEC Mars surface and capture data, including photographs and spectral analysis. Students are encouraged to keep a journal and set up a wiki as part of their assessment.

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.

Unit One – 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.

Unit Two – 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.

Unit Three – 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.

Unit Four – 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).

Unit Five – 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?

Unit Six – Sensorsexplores 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

The site selection activity is also an introduction to “wicked problems” and helps develop the 21st Century skills needed to address them. “Wicked problem” is a phrase used to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise.