The surface of Mars… in Sydney

A rover in the Mars Yard.

Walking around the Mars Yard in the Powerhouse Museum is both wildly inspiring and a boon to conspiracy theorists.

Conspiracy theorists will be wildly enthused by the fact that a few tons of carefully chosen red soil and rocks from Central Australia and a beautifully photostitched panoramic backdrop can recreate the surface of Mars in the basement of a museum – at least until you turn around and see the columns.

No, the Mars Yard, which is the largest one available to the public and the second largest in the World, is really inspiring. My kids and I got the chance to walk the Yard on Saturday and for a wild moment you could really imagine yourself on the red planet. The wonder of the Mars scientist who accompanied us, and who was also visiting for the first time, was completely infectious. Imagine spending your career studying such an untouchable object and then getting an opportunity to so closely imagine yourself being there.

What would Martians make of those columns?

There’s a serious purpose behind the Mars Yard which forms a key part of the Pathways to Space programPathways to Space s a collaborative, hands-on program enabling Year 10-12 students to plan space exploration projects using a living laboratory to simulate realistic scenarios and gain an understanding of a space engineering challenge. We were lucky enough to see a presentation by some of those students and it was utterly amazing. I have serious reservations about the overall state of science education in Australia, but these young people showed that we certainly have some World-class students capable of doing brilliant things when given some support and encouragement.

The program is run by Dr Carol Oliver from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology and it just received a $2.9M grant to enable further development. The new funding will allow the building of a digital media/television studio at the Powerhouse, two new tele-operable rovers to join the two existing rovers in the Mars Yard, and a video and multi-media content searchable database to be constructed and populated with appropriate student, teacher, and public engagement resources. The new project also includes teacher professional development across multiple locations using laptops or desktops as well as video conferencing facilities.

Dr Oliver put her finger on the key thing she hopes to achieve – making the teaching of science more realistically resemble the actual doing of science:

I am excited to have the chance to engage students, teachers and the public with science and engineering research. There is good evidence that school science has little resemblance to real science. This project will hopefully help close that gap for students and teachers…

While the Mars Yard may not really physically bring us closer to Mars, teaching and inspiring the next generation of scientists is exactly what will get us there.

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