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Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Thursday, 22 July 2010 13:34 UK
Oxfordshire students design space rover
Work experience students and their robot rover
(l-r) Ben Falkner, Jessica Heath, Edward James Wigmore, Kate Jones, Luke Smith and Harry Watts spent two weeks designing the rover

Students across West Oxfordshire have been programming a robot prototype designed to explore other planets.

The work experience project is hosted by Oxfordshire's STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).

The students, aged between 14 and 16 years old, have spent two weeks perfecting the 'rover'.

It is controlled by a laptop and was unveiled on Wednesday 21 July in a demonstration in front of pupils, teachers and scientists.

"It's been very interesting," according to Dan Hatton, a pupil at Faringdon Community College. "It's been generally a great experience."

"It was quite fun because you got to find out what it was like to be a real scientist and see what the job was about," said Ben Falkner from King Alfred's College.

"Something like it could go to the Moon and Mars. It has all the right equipment," added fellow pupil Jessica Heath.

"We've added things to measure temperature, a spectrometer and a camera."

"We've also added an infra-red range finder that tells it how close it is to an object and can warn you about collisions," explained Dan.

'Next generation'

STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, based near Didcot, is at the forefront of UK Space Research and is operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The Space Science and Technology Department is regularly involved in European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA missions, having partaken in 150 space operations in recent years.

"One of the key things we want to do in terms of outreach at STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is to try and motivate and generate interest in science and engineering for the next generation," said Brian Maddison, RAL Project Manager.

"Hopefully with this activity we'll be able to take that one step forward."

"We get a large number of applications from students and young people who want to come and do work experience at the lab," said Jo Lewis, work experience coordinator.

"We thought it would be a nice idea to get a few of them together working on a team project."

Space rover
The students came up with ideas for the rover's interface and attachments

Whilst the robot is a prototype, the tests can be invaluable for the department at the RAL.

"The rover itself is demonstrating the difficulties of planetary robotics," explained Brian Maddison.

"This is not a toy rover that's being developed here."

Jo Lewis concurred: "This is a genuine bit of kit. The robots that go into space need to be tested a lot in advance to make sure they're going to function properly.

"The robots they produce that go onto the moon are very expensive - tens of thousands of pounds - so this robot is actually a prototype which is much cheaper.

"They can test everything on this robot before they test it on a larger, more expensive one.

"If the rover falls down a hole on the moon then that's it. You can't go and pick it up and take it back out again!"

Brian Maddison was impressed with the ideas the students came up with.

"Their enthusiasm is always an inspiration. It's always encouraging when you have kids with enthusiasm and commitment.

"They've bought into the idea and focused their energies on it and have really achieved something."

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