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Student teams ace Mars plan at Caltech

It could take several months for aerospace experts to design a manned mission to a Martian moon. Students pulled off the feat in five days.

Caltech hosted a competition on its Pasadena campus this week that divided 32 students from 21 different universities into two teams: Voyager and Explorer. Each team had the same goal: Devise a detailed plan to send astronauts to one of Mars' two moons, Phobos or Deimos.

On Friday, the winners were announced at a reception at Caltech's Athenaeum after each group presented their plan to a jury of space experts. Melissa Tanner, a Pasadena native and mechanical engineering graduate student at Caltech, said she and many other students worked on little or no sleep to complete the project.

Tanner said it was all worth it after she found out her team, Voyager, won.

"I feel powerful," said the 25-year-old. "I feel like I could work on a real space mission now."

Tanner was one of four Caltech students accepted into the competition. Other students traveled around the world to spend their spring break calculating the number of days a human could survive on a Martian moon or figuring out how a space vehicle could traverse a surface with low gravity.

Ashley Chadwick, a 21-year-old graduate student at the University of Adelaide in Australia, said he enjoyed the experience.

"I love this," he said. "I love the lack of sleep and all the problems to solve."

In their plan, the Voyager team decided to send a probe to both moons seven years before a manned mission to Phobos, the larger of the two satellites. The first mission would offer valuable clues about the composition of the moons and how to land on one.

Like a real mission, each team had lead engineers, scientists and members who have experience in spacecraft trajectory and radiation.

"We spent many hours making sure the teams would be equal," said Jason Rabinovitch, a Caltech graduate student who co-organized the program. "It was basically like a fantasy draft."

The teams were named after missions managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The competition focused more on networking than obtaining a prize. Students were mentored by experts from NASA, JPL and Lockheed Martin. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon in 1969, gave a lecture on going to Mars. The winning team members received additional funds for travel expenses.

Professors and scientists who guided the students lauded the work of both teams.

"I was incredibly amazed at what you folks were able to do in five days," Jakob Van Zyl, an associate director of project formulation and strategy at JPL, told the students. "My job at JPL is to make these kinds of things happen, so if you can impress that guy, then you know you've really done a great job."

The competition is not far off from reality. Last year, JPL announced that they are developing spiked rover 'hedgehogs' with researchers from Stanford University and MIT that could be used in a possible future mission to Phobos. The mission could launch sometime between 2023-2033. NASA also has a goal to send astronauts to circle around Mars by the 2030s.

Dan Mazanek, a senior space systems engineer with NASA's Langley Research Center who was one of judges in the competition, said the space agency could even seriously consider the team's proposal.

"I think wherever good ideas come from, they're good ideas," he said.


Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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