15 Mar 2023

Kiwi students off to NASA to work on hunt for alien life

6:41 pm on 15 March 2023
Students with officials from NASA and Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash.

Students with officials from NASA and Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash. Photo: Giles Dexter / RNZ

The top brass of NASA have visited Parliament to celebrate five New Zealand students being awarded scholarships to intern at the prestigious space agency.

The students will spend 16 weeks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California working on a variety of projects, including developing robots and the search for ancient microbial life on Mars.

It was the latter that particularly enthused NASA administrator Bill Nelson. He believed there was life other than humans in space, and that there are "maybe 2 trillion" planets capable of sustaining life.

"Who knows, while you're there we may have our first indication of life far out there in the cosmos," he told the students - Michaela Dobson, Leah Albrow, Jack Naish, Celine Jane and Daniel Wrench.

New Zealand is one of 23 countries signed up to NASA's Artemis Accords, a multilateral programme which codifies the principles of space exploration for peaceful purposes only. The programme also aims to return humans to the moon by 2025.

Deputy administrator Pam Melroy spoke of the common values shared by the US and New Zealand.

"We're great partners. We have strong values around transparency and the rule of law, and those are things we think will bring the best of humanity into space."

Nelson said he valued New Zealand's involvement as "citizens of planet Earth".

"There is just fervent incubators of ideas coming out of New Zealand - including, the best example, is Rocket Lab."

NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA currently has a spacecraft orbiting the moon which was launched by Rocket Lab.

Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash praised the scholarship and wished the students luck.

"In terms of the space game, we're right up there. We have some of the most innovative and amazing entrepreneurs who are doing things that very few people are doing around the world.

"It is an opportunity to partner with the best in the world, so send our best and brightest over there, work in partnership with the best, everyone wins right?"

The five interns (four of which will be funded by the New Zealand government, the fifth privately funded), were selected by NASA and the New Zealand Space Agency from a pool of applicants studying STEM subjects at post-graduate level.

One of the interns, Jack Naish, said the students were "extremely excited" to work at the JPL.

"We go standing on the shoulders of the interns that came before us, and not only that, but the incredible men and women who make JPL what it is today."

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