Students on a mission to Mars

Maple Ridge is a long way from Mars.

But a Thomas Haney secondary student, along with those from Canadian universities are playing...

The simulation is taking place in Utah

Maple Ridge is a long way from Mars.

But a Thomas Haney secondary student, along with those from Canadian universities are playing an important part in the exploration of the ‘Red Planet.’

The project is being run by Western University in London, Ontario, along with four other universities and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Graduate students, those with post-doctorates and a few undergrads are collaborating and testing a new rover.

Marlow Evans, 15, was invited to take part by her cousin, Haley Sapers.

“The overall goal of the mission is to retrieve samples, just like we would on the NASA Mars 2020 rover mission,” explained Evans, a Maple Ridge resident.

“We are simulating a Mars 2020-like mission, and testing out the technology.

“We are working with several new technologies that are on their way to being on the missions to Mars.”

It is the most realistic simulation of this kind that Canadians have ever done, said Gordon Osinski, Western Earth Sciences professor and director of the university’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration.

He called it “the next generation of space explorers getting a unique opportunity.”

Mankind has “driven around Mars,” and its rovers have transmitted information back to Earth.

But no sample have ever been brought back.

That’s the mission in a nutshell, and Osinski said sample retrieval is a mission that is too ambitious and expensive for any single nation to undertake on its own.

A mission to Mars is planned in 2020, and it is intended to collect samples, which will be picked up by a future mission.

There are two groups, one in-simulation, and one out of sim. Evans and Sapers are with the in-sim team, and they plan and program the mission.

The simulation is taking place in Utah, in desert conditions that approximate the conditions that the rover will encounter on Mars.

“My role for the mission is to shadow my cousin,” said Evans. “Haley is the daily activities planner. She runs the Symphony Program – a CSA-developed software program that we are giving feedback on – and manages the computer screens at the front of our mission control room,’ she said.

“It does actually look like what you’d imagine a mission control would look like – computers, labels, big screens, diagrams, and a very large coffee machine.”

Her cousin has been a mentor, and offered Haley a once-in-a-lifetime education opportunity.

“I got involved in the mission because Haley invited me,” she said. “I’ve always loved space and so she e-mailed my family and we worked it out.”

“My cousin is a post doctoral fellow at Western. She has a PhD in geology, planetary science. She’s always been one of my role models because she’s so successful and she supports my love of science. I think she invited me because she knew I would love it.”

After just two sols (Mars days), Evans said she had “learned about things I’d never even imagined.”

“It means a lot to me to be able to be here and participate in something so huge,” she said.

Evans said her experiences have given her a new appreciation for Canada’s contributions to the space exploration effort.

“So many people don’t appreciate how amazing our space program is,” she said. “I can tell you it’s pretty great.”

Evans is also a budding poet, and she’s not yet committing to a future in the sciences.

“I don’t know what kind of a career is want. In Maple Ridge I’m very involved in local poetry contests…” she said.

“But then something like this comes along and reminds me why I love space. I have no idea what I want to be ‘when I grow up,’ but I know why I love space: it’s the one place where my love of the fantastical meets my love of science.”

The simulation runs until Sunday, Nov. 29.

• The public can go on Twitter and check out #CanMars to see posts from scientists on the team.

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