NASA'S Spaceward Bound project, established in 2006, is an outreach initiative aimed at educating people around the world.
A team of NASA scientists travels to different countries, involving educators in real planetary exploration fieldwork here on Earth. For the first time the team has come to New Zealand, bringing prototype rover Junior with them.
"This is a huge feather in our cap and it's really going to help put New Zealand on the map in terms of astrobiology and also space research in general," says Prof Steve Pointing of AUT.
"This is very exciting," says Haritina Mogosanu, head of the New Zealand Astrobiology Initiative. "I heard about spaceward bound in 2011 and I dreamt [of] having it in New Zealand, and been thinking ever since, and really it's a historical day for me."
The goal is to pass on knowledge from professional NASA scientists to tertiary students, and eventually to schoolchildren.
"Science is one of those subjects that we're really trying to encourage children to take part in more, and astrobiology is a great platform for that because what it does is it brings together different scientific disciplines - everything from physics, to chemistry, to biology, and even robotics and engineering," says Prof Pointing.
While Junior's here he'll be used for tests on Rotorua's hot springs, similar to the testing rovers Curiosity and Opportunity are doing on Mars as they search for signs of life.
"We're really excited to be in New Zealand because of all the geological and microbiology features," says NASA astrobiologist Jan Blank. "New Zealand's a great setting for a lot of planetary analogue environments, and we can find them in such a close geographical area, so that's exciting."
NASA mechanical engineer David Wilson is the brains behind Junior.
"On Mars you could be up to 50 million miles away from your robot. Commands take at least 20 minutes or more sometimes to get from here to there and back again. In that 20 minutes if your rover is driving too fast, it could hit a rock, turn over, fall into a crater, fall off a cliff."
Although he won't ever make it there, Junior still has a role to play in the search for life on the red planet.
Watch the video for more on NASA's Spaceward Bound project, including an interview with NASA senior scientist Chris McKay.
source: newshub archive