Western University researchers and students have launched CanMars Mission 2016, a Mars rover simulation that is expected to have significant impacts on future Mars expeditions.

Team members are remotely controlling the Mars rover and analyzing data and searching for appropriate samples that can be returned to earth.

In this case, doubling for Mars is Utah.

"It's really training the next generation. I mean, for these students to experience some really, pretty hi-fidelity, simulated missions, I think, is absolutely amazing," says Gordon Osinski, Planetary Geology research chair.

It's called analogous site testing, finding terrains and conditions that closely replicate those on Mars and using those environments to put research tools through their paces.

The next mission to Mars in 2020 is designed to be the first step in collecting material and returning it to Earth for extensive testing.

The ultimate goal?

Proving that life once existed on the red planet.

The CanMars has become a critical component of that effort.

"It makes a lot of sense to get that material here and for that mission to be as productive as possible with the two or three years it will have on the surface to find the right sample, to find as many samples as you can in that time," says Raymond Francis, Western grad and engineer at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory.

"This is a very unique opportunity that even most students who study planetary science aren't able to do something like this. So, western is really special in that regard," says Elise Harrington, CanMars team member.

While CanMars mission control may be located at Western's Physics and Astronomy Building, expertise is coming from researchers and students from across the country, including many other universities.

"I think Canadians are well positioned. We've got participation on NASA-led missions, on European-led missions. And so, sort of, the Canadian flavour is being felt in exploration world-wide," says Tim Haltigin with the Canadian Space Agency.

The CanMars 2016 mission began on Oct. 31 and will wrap up in just over two weeks.