Curious students aim to reach for the red planet

"It's a great opportunity" ... Bernanda Telalovic.
"It's a great opportunity" ... Bernanda Telalovic.

MEET Bernanda Telalovic, the 17-year-old western Sydney high school student who could be one of the first humans on Mars.

The successful landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Monday signified many things - an engineering miracle, a rebirth for NASA and an inspirational event to entice a generation of young people into careers in science, engineering and maths. But most significantly, the flawless touchdown paves the way for humans to explore the red planet within the next two decades.

Before the landing, the astrophysicist and blogger Stuart Clark warned a failed Curiosity descent would mark the end of NASA's Mars expeditions for a decade.

Instead, the head of NASA, Charles Bolden, was able to say: ''This mission is a precursor to sending humans to the red planet in the 2030s, a goal set forth by President Obama.''

Just three months ago, during a visit to Australia, Mr Bolden told Bernanda Telalovic and a group of her peers that the first person on Mars in 2030 was likely be a senior high school student of today, someone like themselves.

Bernanda, who participates in a NASA Mars Student Imaging Program at the Powerhouse Museum, will attend Space Academy - an astronaut training camp for young people - in Alabama next month. ''It's a great opportunity to see what NASA is like and what a career in space would be like,'' she said.

While the year 11 student at Casula High School plans to study particle physics, she would not rule out a career as a planetary scientist. ''Who would miss out on an opportunity to go to Mars,'' she said.

One of the co-ordinators of the program, Carol Oliver, said the Curiosity mission would encourage young students to study science and engineering.

''It was like the Apollo landing [on the moon]. I can remember how that gripped the world,'' said Dr Oliver, a senior research fellow at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at University of NSW.

Since NASA's space shuttle program was retired last year, critics had suggested the agency's leadership in space exploration was coming to an end.

NASA's first Mars program director, Scott Hubbard, said the mission was ''ammunition'' the science community could use to demand the US government restore NASA's budget.

Curiosity spent its first day on Mars running instrument ''health checks'' and communications tests. Yesterday afternoon the rover beamed back its first colour image of the planet's surface.

This story Curious students aim to reach for the red planet first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.