11 mins read 04 Feb 2021

Mission success for COSPAR-K virtual STEM events

While COSPAR-K was trimmed down and moved online, the free STEM event which ran alongside the 43rd COSPAR Scientific Assembly still delivered on inspiration. The future opportunities for the next generation to be involved in the space industry seem more exciting, more accessible, and more possible than ever.

COSPAR-K, the educational arm of the COSPAR Scientific Assembly, was designed for teachers, students and parents to participate in free STEM talks, workshops, and virtual activities alongside the Scientific Assembly (COSPAR 2021). The event was run in partnership with the NSW Government, STEM Industry School Partnerships (SISP) Program, with Dr. Scott Sleap (SISP) co-hosting and moderating many online sessions from Saturday 27 January through to Tuesday 2 February 2021.  

Held every two years, this is the first time Australia has hosted COSPAR (Committee on Space Research) Scientific Assembly since the event’s inception in 1958. COSPAR-K was to be the educational arm of the main assembly offering a plethora of events, workshops and activities before Covid-19 and nation-wide border closures put a spanner in the works. Instead, COSPAR-K went ahead with a small sub-set of activities online and aim to run the full program in August/September 2021 in affiliation with National Science Week. 

Over the course of the event, free online access was available to hear talks by NASA’s Dr. Adrian Brown, a two-hour Teach-the-Teacher workshop on Space tools and data for the classroom, an interactive and highly engaging workshop by Monash students participating in the Nova Rover Challenge and a talk on Habitable Worlds by Praxical from the University of New South Wales. There was also the opportunity to participate in a live Q&A session with leading scientists and engineers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. 

Dr Adrian Brown: NASA Mars 2020

An illustration of NASA's Perseverance rover landing on Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land safely on Feb. 18, 2021. Credit: NASA

Originally from Melbourne, Dr. Adrian Brown is a NASA Mars 2020 Deputy Program Scientist. The Mars Rover, named Perseverance, is due to land on Mars in a couple of weeks -18 February. Its mission is to collect a variety of samples in ‘cached’ titanium tubes and to transport the Mars Helicopter to the surface. 

Perseverance, which Dr. Brown describes as about the size of a Mini Cooper, will land at the Jezero Delta System which is believed to be 3.81 billion years old.  The Jezero Crater is a 45-kilometer-wide basin located near the equator of Mars. Around 3.5 billion years ago, a river system flowed into a body of water with an area of about 500km2 (almost the size of Canberra), depositing sediments in a fan shape known as a delta. The Mission team believes this ancient river delta and lake deposits could have the potential to have preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life. Perseverance’s aim is to collect rock samples from the delta and beyond for future analysis on Earth. 

Perseverance has a drill that instead of pulverizing the rock for samples, will cut intact rock cores and store the samples in the titanium tubes ready for collection. The next mission in 2026 will send in a ‘Fetch rover’ designed to pick up the cached samples for return to Earth. The samples are due back on Earth in 2031. 

When Perseverance reaches Mars, it will release the Mars Helicopter-drone called Ingenuity. This is the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet. Ingenuity is powered by solar panels and will attempt small flights to take footage of both the planet’s surface and the Rover. 

Dr. Brown gave some great insight into how the rock materials and formation in Australia, specifically Shark Bay stromatolites, are modern analogues of early life on Earth and possible former life on Mars and how studying these rocks can give insight into whether there was, or currently is, life on Mars. 

When asked what his favourite part of the mission is, he responded, “If we’re able to find signs of life such as stromatolites, that would instantly be my favourite part of the mission. 

“If we do find it, it will change the mission straight away. We would immediately be answering the question of how prevalent life is on other planets. It would be ‘all pens down. We have to get the rover to that location and find out more about how it was present on Mars and how it got there.’ That would be everyone’s favourite part of the mission.”

Speaking at a Public Lecture ‘What it's like to work on the M2020 Mars Mission’, Dr. Brown shared his excitement both of the current mission to Mars as well as other Mars missions such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) mission due to arrive in Mars orbit in just before M2020. He believes that studying Mars could be a fantastic opportunity for the burgeoning Australian space industry across many different scientific and engineering fields. 

Monash University Nova Rover - Mars Classroom talk

The Monash University 2019 team – the only entry accepted from the southern hemisphere to participate in the 2019 University Rover Challenge (URC) at the Mas Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah.

The Monash Nova Rover virtual activity started with the general chaos of an un-muted online class of ten to twelve-year-olds from a combined year 5/6 class. 

The Monash Nova Rover team has been a participant in the University Rover Challenge since 2017 and was the first Australian team (and first in the Southern Hemisphere) to be accepted into the challenge. The team has participated every year since and was accepted in the 2020 challenge with a System Access Review score of 88/100, placing them in the top 36 teams of the 96 who entered (due to COVID-19 the event could not go ahead). 

Unfortunately, in the session the coding workshop needed to be dropped, so the focus of the session was on rock analysis, the different aspects of identifying types of rock and rock formations, and the star of the show, the latest Monash Nova Rover that the students had an opportunity to control remotely. 

There was a course laid out in a large room with flags indicating where different rocks were located, as well as the sad remains of the previous Nova Rovers which provided the obstacles the students needed to navigate around. 

There were three camera views to see the room – a forward view mounted on the Nova Rover, a view from above, and one camera mounted directly underneath the Rover. Using the camera views, the students needed to navigate around the obstacles and position the rover over the rock specimen. 

Once the specimen was in camera view, the students were shown several similar candidates to see if they could identify the rock type, using the different scientific characteristics. Once the rock was identified, the discussion moved to whether or not there might have been a possibility of holding some kind of organic life within the rock. 

Obsidian featured as one sample with a surprisingly high number of students successfully answering how obsidian was formed through their knowledge of playing Minecraft. 

The students had some great questions such as how long would the Rover survive on Mars (not long as it doesn’t have the solar panels or fuel source the real Mars Rover has) and how fast does the Nova Rover go? (Pretty fast!)

The Monash University Nova Rover team of students impressively not only delivered a lot of science and engineering information but managed to do so in a thoroughly engaging and (virtually) hands-on way.

Teach the Teacher Teaser – Space tools for teaching

Stellarium view of the night sky, Sydney 2027.

There are some amazing tools and data available for teachers to use in classrooms and for students to explore in their own studies. It’s just a matter of learning to use them. 

Dr. Rosa Doran runs programs for teachers to understand the tools that are available and how to use them in order to expand on the learning experience, particularly within inquiry-based learning. 

Instead of hand-feeding information to students, the teachers offer scenarios, questions and/or problems for students to investigate, research and communicate their findings. In this teaser session, the teachers became the students as Dr. Doran presented information using various tools and showed how to use these resources to present evidence and drill further down and look at data in various ways to gain a deeper insight into what that data can tell us. 

The pace was very fast and was only a taste of what is possible. The full program runs for 25 hours and full support and advice are offered after doing the course. 

Dr. Doran started with Google Earth, where, in a classroom environment, you could pin the locations of all the space agencies or mark all the locations of rocket launches – possibilities are endless but a lot more engaging than a list within a PowerPoint presentation. 

Next up was Salsa J, based on huge quantities of data that can be sorted, measured, and reported on. Dr. Doran explained how groups of students used Salsa J to contribute to data around exoplanets and black holes. 

Stellarium as both an installed application and a web-based tool was demonstrated, including how to change time and location views to see astronomical phenomena from the past, future and from different perspectives from across the world. 

More tools such as Celestia, World Wide Telescope and data collections such as the Faulkes Telescope Archives were demonstrated as a way to offer different levels of scientific investigation techniques to different levels of students. 

Dr. Doran offers training through the Galileo Teacher Training Program.

Exploring Habitable Worlds with Praxical

Praxical co-founders and presenters, Luke Steller and Bonnie Teece, led a discussion based on Praxical’s Exploring Habitable Worlds workshop.

University of NSW(UNSW) PhD student, Luke Steller, and UNSW scientist and educator Bonnie Teece ran this session to talk about their pathways into science, astrobiology, and the diversity of science options available that all contribute to the space industry. Unfortunately, the planet simulator was unable to be used, which would have given the students the opportunity to explore how different planet and star characteristics affect the ability for life to begin and thrive. Instead the pair talked about their own, very different, pathways into science and what they loved about their fields. 

While it was disappointing not to have the interactive session, the pair did a great job explaining why the study of our own world, and extreme environments in particular, can help scientists understand what to look for in worlds. They used both the Australian desert and Antarctica as examples of terrestrial analogue sites that can be studied to further understand the environments on celestial bodies. 

NASA Goddard Space Centre – Q and A session

Dr.Knicole Colon, Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, seen with the James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop Grumman Corporation in Redondo Beach, California. Credits: Knicole Colon

NASA’s Goddard Space Center is home to the Hubble Space Telescope, manages communications between mission control and orbiting astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), and has more than 50 spacecraft exploring the Earth and the solar system. 

For COSPAR-K, a group of prominent scientists and engineers (virtually) came together to talk about their own pathways into the space industry and why STEM is so important. 

The presentations with follow-up Q & A session included:

  • Brian Roberts, Deputy Director of NASA's Exploration and In-Space Services Projects Division, 
  • Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum, Chief of the Hydrological Sciences Laboratory,
  • Dr. Antti Pulkkinen, Acting Director, Heliophysics Science Division, 
  • Michael Amato, Manager and Lead Systems Engineer of Planetary line of business, 
  • Dr. Knicole Colon, Research Astrophysicist/Planet Hunter.

Each spoke about their area of expertise, giving a rich view of the diversity in backgrounds and fields that come together and contribute towards missions and research. Whether it’s building sensors to find satellites, using earth science to understand the formation and evolution of other planets through to the nature of the sun and its influence over planets and space, and finding new exoplanets. It was a dynamic session with the diversity of paths and fields very apparent. Dr. Knicole Colon summed it up nicely towards the end of the session with advice to start with a strong foundation in maths and science, any science, and that will help set you up to find your passion and move towards it, and keep talking to teachers, advisors and mentors. 

COSPAR-K in Science Week 2021

With the change to the program due to COVID-19, COSPAR-K was just a taste of the originally planned events. COSPAR-K aims to run the full program in August/September 2021 in affiliation with National Science Week. 

Despite technical difficulties over the course of the online event, the quality of speakers and the range of topics covered ensured the COSPAR-K teaser event was both engaging and inspiring.