Thirty-two students in aerospace, engineering and science programs in 11 different countries descended on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory last week as part of a Caltech competition to design a mission to one of Mars' two moons, Phobos or Deimos.
"Watching the enthusiasm there was just really impressive," said Jason Rabinovitch, a Caltech graduate student who co-organized the program with fellow graduate student Nick Parziale.
Parziale added that students, who visited JPL for a tour, had to be dragged away from each station during the tour.
The students were split into teams named after missions managed by JPL — Voyager and Explorer — and had five days to plan the missions before presenting them to a jury of space experts.
But the competition focused more on gaining knowledge of getting to Mars and networking for future jobs rather than a prize. Students were mentored by experts from NASA, JPL and Lockheed Martin. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon after Neil Armstrong in 1969, gave a lecture on getting to Mars.
Each team had lead engineers, scientists and members who had experience in spacecraft trajectory and radiation, just as if a real mission was being planned.
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 learned that 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 participants hailed from 21 different universities.
The winning team members received additional funds for travel expenses.
In their plan, members of 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.
JPL 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. JPL recently announced that it is developing spiked roving balls called "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 circumnavigate 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.
Ashley Chadwick, a 21-year-old graduate student at the University of Adelaide in Australia, said it was exciting to travel to JPL, since his country does not have a NASA center. He also enjoyed spending his spring break staying up late to work on a manned space mission.
"I love this," he said. "I love the lack of sleep and all the problems to solve."
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