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N.S. students win chance to drive lunar rover here on Earth

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It's not every day Grade 9 students can try their hand at operating a real lunar rover, but that’s what a class at Centre Scolaire de la Rive Sud did Wednesday.

From their Cookville, N.S., classroom, about a dozen students split into teams working together to remotely maneuver the small robotic machine on a mock lunar surface located in Stratford, Ont.

“We have people monitoring the health of the rover, we have people collecting the data, we have our team deciding where we want to go, but then we have our team that's actually doing the driving,” said Floriane Dion of Let’s Talk Science.

The out of this world opportunity is the prize in a national competition offered by the science education organization called the Lunar Rover Research Challenge.

To win, students had to submit their plan for a moon mission.

“They have to get to the craters to find water and they have to justify the path they took and why they took it,” explained Dion.

That exercise led to Wednesday’s hands-on experience using remote technology and guidance from experts by videoconference to carry out the same task in a simulation.

“It’s a fully operating real rover,” said Leah Davis-Purcell of space research and technology company Avalon Space.

Davis-Purcell came to the event from Toronto to share her knowledge of the real-world technology required for space exploration.

The rover manned by the students is an early prototype of one that will be built by Canadensys, the company tasked with providing the nation’s very first lunar rover for the upcoming Artemis II missions to the moon.

Students at Centre Scolaire de la Rive Sud preparing to drive the lunar rover.

At its testing facility, Canadensys engineers operate the wheeled prototype over specially manufactured material meant to mimic the texture of the soil on the moon’s surface.

The students moved their rover remotely over the very same surface.

“You can see the images that the rover is picking up with its cameras, and then these are the controls for actually moving it,” explained Davis-Purcell, pointing to a large screen in the classroom.

The class at Centre Scolaire de la Rive Sud was the only winner from Atlantic Canada in the 2022-23 edition of the competition. Nine-thousand young people across the country participated.

“You need a lot of communication,” said student Harrison Olivella, who acknowledged the experience was merely a taste of what a real space mission would be like.

“Definitely more stressful, probably, more pressure,” he laughed, “but similar.”

He said the two hours spent on the simulation has piqued his interest in space exploration.

“I would want to design rovers,” he said. “So this is really a nice experience for me.”

A view from the camera of the lunar rover.

It’s the start of what organizers hope could turn into a lifelong interest in space.

“I didn't think I was really interested in it all, but this kind of made me think I might be in the future,” said student Sofia Lausanne.

“That's how I feel too,” adds classmate Charlieze Donat. “It was just really interesting to see how everything worked.”

“I realized that it is quite complicated, but it's not always complicated if you wanted to go into this type of field,” said Claudia Comeau. “I also found I might want to work in a team because this was a lot of fun.”

Exactly what organizers are striving for.

“There are so many different ways to get into space careers,” said Dion. “It could be field work, we need space mechanics, anyone can be part of the space industry if that’s what they want, and that’s what we want students to know.” 

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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