Contest at OCC challenges students to simulate Mars rover mission

Mars landscapeOrange Coast College in Costa Mesa will serve as the Southern California hub for NASA’s ROADS on Mars Student Challenge, which will give local students a chance to complete a simulated Mars mission — and possibly win a trip to the Kennedy Space Center for the next rover launch.

ROADS, in this context, is short for “Rover Observation And Drone Survey.” The April 25 regional competition at OCC will task students in grades three through 12 with virtually delivering and retrieving their own Red Planet rovers, resolving a host of engineering, programming and logistical challenges along the way.

ROADS on Mars Challenge logo

The deadline to sign up for the contest has been extended to Jan. 30, and registration is free. For more information, visit NASA’s Northwest Earth and Space Science Pipeline website at

OCC geology professor and STEM Director Erik Bender said student teams will be asked to deploy a rover that they’ve built themselves using robotics Legos. The challenges will mirror those associated with the upcoming Mars 2020 mission.

“Mars 2020 mission is going to a specific crater on Mars where, we suspect, water has been flowing, and where there are signs of life,” Bender said. “For this challenge, kids are going to operate a drone, flying it around a globe of Mars before landing it on a specific target.”

“The rover will pick up rock samples, and afterward the drone will fly back in to pick it up and return to Earth,” he added. “It’s a re-creation of what the Mars 2020 mission will be.”

Speaking of which, top-performing teams from across the country will earn a trip to the Kennedy Space Center for the actual launch of Mars 2020 in July or August.

Bender plans to host several workshops at OCC early next year to show participating teams what the judges will be looking for. Registration is open to any student in grades three through 12, though all teams must have an adult mentor.

The ROADS on Mars Challenge was established to increase student interest in STEM pathways and careers, particularly in underserved communities. In the video below, NESSP Director Robert Winglee outlines the contest during a webinar for educators and hub organizers.