Space agency plans Mars rover from Lego bricks

Lego rover Image copyright Other
Image caption The European Space Agency and Lego are running an education project following the next mission to Mars

Lego wants to be taken seriously as something more than a toy. The plastic brick made by the Danish toy company wants to construct a more hi-tech identity. It wants to be part of teaching about a space project.

As one team of European Space Agency scientists has landed a robot on a comet, another is working on a major robotics project for the future - and some of the robots will be made entirely from Lego.

Two types of robot vehicle are being designed in tandem for the ESA's next big adventure, a mission to look for signs of life on Mars. One vehicle will be for the actual Mars landing and a parallel version for schools and universities will be made from Lego.

This ExoMars mission - the "exo" here referring to exobiology, the study of extra-terrestrial life forms - will reach its destination in January 2019, when the six-wheeled ExoMars Rover, packed with scientific instruments, is scheduled to be gently deposited on the Red Planet.

Even before it arrives, many students and schoolchildren across Europe will have tested the capabilities of this ingenious piece of machinery, and will already have hypothesised about what it might find, using Lego models and software.

Space in the classroom

They will have considered how robots might behave in the zero-gravity conditions of an orbiting satellite, and how to ensure they land exactly where you want them.

Image copyright NASA
Image caption The surface of Mars recorded by a previous space mission

Pupils will be able to take part in a project integrated into the International Baccalaureate physics and design and technology curriculum, jointly developed by ESA's education teams and Lego.

"We have had two engineers here in our robotics and automations lab, who have developed with Lego bricks a similar platform to the prototype ExoMars Rover," said Hugo Marée, head of the ESA's education and knowledge management office.

Alongside these cunning constructions, the joint ESA and Lego education teams have devised lesson plans and schemes of work, all of which should be ready for the first ExoMars teacher-training sessions next year.

These will be open to teachers from across the EU, and be held at a new residential teacher training centre at the ESA ground-station in Redu, Belgium.

Here a little bit of Mars is being re-created in the shadow of an array of massive satellite tracking dishes, a patch of rocky and dusty Martian-style terrain where the robots can crawl around and dig their probes.

Learn through play

Mr Marée said the project would follow the pattern of all ESA's educational initiatives, using space as a context, and not as the subject itself - and it won't only focus on the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines.

The model-making Mars project also works well with Lego's principle that "you cannot play without learning, and that you cannot learn without playing".

Image copyright AP
Image caption Getting technical: A Lego inventions competition earlier this month in New York

It won't be the first time that Lego has been involved in space research.

In 2012, Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, while orbiting the earth inside the International Space Station, filmed himself making a metre-long replica of that spacecraft.

Two years before that, Nasa astronauts took a Lego model of the Discovery shuttle into space to mark an educational alliance between the US space agency and the toymaker.

For the new Mars project, Lego provides a way for the ESA to teach about space robotics.

Coding robots

For over a decade Lego has been developing "intelligent bricks" which, linked with motors, gears, wheels and levers, probes and sensors, allow students to construct and programme functioning robots.

Image caption Cambridge University: Students have used Lego in engineering experiments

These systems have proved especially popular in higher education. Lego's Simon Davenport believes this is partly down to the decision to use open source software, making them very adaptable.

This means students can do their own coding and programming - a real boon for undergraduate engineering and computer science courses.

Cambridge University's engineering department is one of many higher education institutions to exploit these ready-made resources. Here, freshers are told that their first week will be spent using Lego to design and build a device that demonstrates some aspect of engineering science.

At Tufts University School of Engineering in Boston, in the United States, Dr Ethan Danahy runs a robotics course for first year undergraduates using Lego's Mindstorms robotics toolset.

Many of the students' weird creations, such as a Halloween trick or treat robot, are collecting hits on YouTube.

Dr Danahy also uses Lego in his research at Tufts University's Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, working with schools to develop tools that support creativity and collaborative learning.

But however sophisticated Lego's digital offerings become, the plain plastic brick will always be at the heart of things. Part of the appeal is its familiarity - the reminder of the childhood pleasure of imaginative play.

Even, it seems, if that brick happens to be floating in the the zero-gravity conditions of outer space.