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06/15/2011 07:00:00

Caltech Space Challenge: Mission to an Asteroid

If you're a student who's ever wanted to plan a manned space mission—or channel your inner Bruce Willis from the movie Armageddon—now's your chance. This September, Caltech will a host a workshop inviting about 20 graduate and undergraduate students from around the world to design a mission to an asteroid or comet in Earth's neighborhood—a so-called Near-Earth Object (NEO)—that would return a sample of rock or ice. The Caltech Space Challenge, sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, will pit two groups against each other to plan the best mission.

"Designing a human-exploration mission to a near-Earth asteroid is both timely and exciting," says Donald Yeomans, who manages NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL and is one of the faculty mentors for the workshop. "The most spacecraft-accessible asteroids in Earth's neighborhood are also the most dangerous in terms of their ability to collide with Earth."

Experts from Caltech and JPL will give talks and mentor the students, providing them with the basic knowledge to plan a space mission. The two teams will then put their heads together and come up with a target and trajectory, a spacecraft design, experiments and instruments, and everything else needed for a mission. The workshop will look for students from a variety of fields—chemists, mechanical engineers, software engineers, and, for a manned mission, even someone with a medical background, says Prakhar Mehrotra, one of the graduate students leading the project.

Mehrotra says he came up with the idea after taking part in a similar program with the European Space Agency in 2009. In that program, called the Space Station Design Workshop, participants had to design a mission to the moon. The experience was so rewarding that he wanted to do something similar at Caltech, taking advantage of the resources at JPL to receive practical training in engineering and research.

In 2010, President Obama announced his goal to land an astronaut on an asteroid by 2025. So this year, Mehrotra teamed up with Jon Mihaly, a graduate student in aerospace engineering, to organize a workshop that challenges students to plan a mission that does just that.

In addition to developing possible techniques to divert a future, life-threatening asteroid impact, Yeomans says, an asteroid mission will help scientists learn more about the origins of the solar system and life on Earth. NEOs were left over from the processes that formed the solar system, and they likely brought with them water and organic compounds that are crucial for life when they slammed into Earth early in the planet's history. These kinds of impacts played a critical role in shaping the evolution of life. One such collision might have led to the demise of the dinosaurs, for example.

After the workshop, scientists and engineers from JPL will cull the ideas and apply them toward the design of an asteroid mission, Mehorotra says. Participants might be able to parlay their experiences into research internships at JPL.

"I really think it's important to get people interested in this field," adds Mihaly. With an aging NASA, it's crucial to train the mission planners of the future.

The Caltech Space Challenge will take place from September 12 to 16. To apply or to learn more, click here. Applications are due July 8.

Written by Marcus Woo