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Future space explorers tour JPL

Students are part of competition to plan trips to Martian moons.

April 04, 2013|By Tiffany Kelly,

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."

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