AIAA RMS STEM Committee sponsored a student essay contest to encourage middle school students to learn about space missions. Seventh and eighth grade students from schools in our section were invited to submit an original essay with the following theme:
"Describe a space mission that integrates at least three of the following system capabilities:
· autonomous systems; · disaggregated satellites or platforms; · on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing; · in-situ resource utilization; small satellites; · data analytics; · optical and radio communications; · advanced propulsion; · advanced sensors (low mass, high-sensitivity, quantum, etc.)
What is the objective of this mission, and how will the mission achieve the objective?"
Four AIAA RMS members reviewed and scored the entries: Katie Jo Adams, Michael Anderson, Lynnane George, and Paul Krois. The criteria included originality of ideas presented, soundness of logic used to develop ideas, realism of ideas presented, and quality of composition, clarity of expression and grammar and spelling. The winning authors were presented with a certificate and a monetary award. First place essays were forwarded to the Space System Technical Committee for the national competition.
Adrianna (8th grade, second place) sent a thank you note: “I was overjoyed when I received this letter. It took a lot of effort to write this essay, but it was so interesting. Thank you for all you have done.”
I hope you will find the winning essays interesting and inspiring.
Look for an announcement of the 2023 contest in March.
Sue Janssen AIAA RMS STEM Committee
First Place 8th Grade
Student: Alayna Garrett
Teacher: Elizabeth Busler
School: East Middle School, Colorado Springs
Journey to the TRAPPIST-1 System Propelled by Hydrogen Fusion
The search for extraterrestrial life has always been a driving force for the human race. The idea that we aren’t alone in this universe is the ultimate motivation for the research and innovations we come up with. Recently, telescopes have spotted a system with seven exoplanets orbiting an ultra-cool red dwarf star. This system, called the TRAPPIST-1 system—named after the telescope that spotted it—has several conditions that makes it an excellent destination for space travel. To reach the system successfully, autonomous systems, advanced propulsion, and in-situ resources will be utilized.
The TRAPPIST-1 system is just under 40 light years away. Out of the seven exoplanets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star, three are in the Goldilocks zone for this particular system. The planets are thought to be similar in structure to Earth, with similar sizes, gravities, and densities. The farthest planet from the star, TRAPPIST-1H, is closer to the star than Mercury is to the Sun. The planets are remarkably close together compared to our solar system, and have extremely short years, with the longest being 19 days. They are all thought to be tidally locked, due to their proximity to the star. Although the planets aren’t quite Earth’s twins, they are exceptionally similar in many aspects. TRAPPIST-1E, F, and G orbit in the system’s Goldilocks zone. This is the distance from the star where liquid surface water is most likely to be found. This system is one of the most promising places where many of the conditions for supporting life are met.
Some scientists theorize that the planets might hold alien life. It would be an incredible discovery if there was indeed life in this system, no matter how primitive. The main objective of this mission is to gather more information on the planets, specifically TRAPPIST-1E. This planet has been studied most and is most likely to have easily accessible liquid water. The probe will bring a rover to touch down on the surface of the planet. Soil samples will be collected to later be brought back to Earth to be analyzed. The rover will look for water, liquid or ice, on the surfaces, and will carry technology to identify the composition of the planet’s atmosphere to see if it contains the gasses required for life known on Earth.
The distance between Earth and the TRAPPIST-1 system will render normal communication methods unusable. From Earth, we will not be able to give the rover real time instructions, so it will need to be able to completely self-direct itself. The rover is going to be equipped with an advanced version of NASA’s AutoNav system. “…this enhanced system makes 3D maps of the terrain ahead, identifies hazards, and plans a route around any obstacles without additional direction from controllers back on Earth” (Brennan, 2021). This system will allow the rover to make its own decisions on where to explore, limiting the amount of human interaction required. As this planet has not been explored previously, the rover will be in completely new territory. No photos exist of the surface, so it will be mapping its own course and analyzing the best site to extract samples.
Because the TRAPPIST-1 system is 40 light years away, it is going to take a while to get there. It would take an extraordinary amount of thrust to get up to even 10% of the speed of light, so more advanced thrust systems are going to be a must. With current technology, it will be impossible to carry the amount of fuel needed to travel all the way to the system. Instead, a propulsion system using hydrogen that can be refueled using any star or gaseous planet matter will be used on this mission. Using a nuclear fusion reactor similar in design to a stellarator, deuterium particles will be fused under extreme heat. In a doughnut-shaped reactor, magnetic field coils will contain ionized plasma heated to nearly 100,000,000 degrees Celsius (Clery, 2015). The plasma will heat the deuterium enough to cause deuterium-deuterium fusion. This reaction releases intense amounts of energy that can be used to power the spacecraft. There will be a reactor at both ends of the probe, to aid in slowing the craft down when it gets closer to its destination.
To make the trip back from the TRAPPIST-1 system, the probe will need to refuel and restock on its hydrogen reserves. This mission will last for 2190 days, or 6 years, after arrival. While the rover is exploring the surface of the planet, the probe will collect hydrogen from the solar wind particles the star sends out. After the 2190 days are up, the probe is programmed to retrieve the rover, which will use a miniature thrust system of its own, using regular rocket fuel, to get off of the planet’s surface. The rover will then be magnetically attracted to the probe and docked into it, similar to how space shuttles dock into the ISS.
Although there are destinations in space that are far closer than the TRAPPIST-1 system that we could explore, the system remains unique in that every planet in it has striking similarities to Earth. This system may soon provide a home to life forms from Earth if this mission proves to be successful. With the advances in technology that we have made, future interstellar and intergalactic missions to explore the universe and look for alien life will be possible.
Bigot, Bernard. “Hydrogen Fusion: The Way to a New Energy Future.” The European Files, 11 Oct. 2021, https://www.europeanfiles.eu/environment/hydrogen-fusion-the-way-to-a-new-energy-future
Brennan, Pat. “NASA's Self-Driving Perseverance Mars Rover 'Takes the Wheel'.” Edited by Tony Greicius, NASA, NASA, 1 July 2021, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/nasa-s-self-driving-perseverance-mars-rover-takes-the-wheel
Clery, Daniel. “The Bizarre Reactor That Might Save Nuclear Fusion.” Science, 21 Oct. 2015, https://www.science.org/content/article/bizarre-reactor-might-save-nuclear-fusion#:~:text=Stellarators%20face%20the%20same%20challenge,temperature%20of%20the%20sun%27s%20core.
Harris, William. “What If You Traveled Faster than the Speed of Light?” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 8 Mar. 2018, https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/what-if/what-if-faster-than-speed-of-light.htm?srch_tag=d33cdwixguwpxhfrmh5kcghshouod2hs
Kaser, Rachel. “NASA Discovered Seven Nearby Planets That Could Support Life.” The Next Web, 22 Feb. 2017, https://thenextweb.com/news/nasa-discovered-seven-nearby-planets-that-could-support-life.
Lanctot, Matthew. “DOE Explains...Deuterium-Tritium Fusion Reactor Fuel.” Energy.gov, https://www.energy.gov/science/doe-explainsdeuterium-tritium-fusion-reactor-fuel.
“Nuclear Fusion Power.” Nuclear Fusion : WNA - World Nuclear Association, Aug. 2021, https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-fusion-power.aspx
Peshin, Akash. “How an Innovative Propulsion Technology Will Send You to Mars in 3 Days?” Science ABC, 4 Jan. 2022, https://www.scienceabc.com/innovation/what-is-photonic-propulsion-lightsail-2-solar-sail.html.
First Place 7th Grade
Student: Axel Anderson
Teacher: Cynthia Jacquet
School: Eagleview Middle School, Colorado Springs
Mars Sample Return Mission.
Right now, there is a rover on Mars called Perseverance that is collecting rocks and other samples from Mars, searching for signs of life and other secrets of the solar system. These valuable artifacts will remain on Mars unless we retrieve them. Fortunately, a mission has been proposed, called the Mars Sample Return Mission to do just that . Although plans have been discussed, they are only in their early stages. To accomplish this mission, NASA will have to send another spacecraft to Mars, which will enter the Martian orbit, deploy a smaller lander to the surface, load the samples from Perseverance and onto an ascent vehicle, which must shoot up to the spacecraft, and finally return to Earth for study. This process is complicated and will need the aid of many advanced technologies. Three of these are advanced propulsion, autonomous systems, and advanced sensors. Scientists and Engineers are working hard to improve these technologies for this mission. These advancements will also aid the exploration of the entire solar system and hopefully beyond.
One of the technologies needed to return samples from Mars is advanced propulsion. This will reduce travel time and use less rocket fuel. For a spacecraft to go all the way to Mars and back, it will take so much fuel that the rocket might not even be able to lift off the ground. An alternative is to gather energy for propulsion while it travels through space. Thankfully, this is possible with electric propulsion. Electric propulsion allows the ship to accelerate on the journey there, which is much faster than coasting all the way to Mars and back, as we do with rocket propulsion. Fuel can be collected from the sun's energy as the ship travels.
The NASA article, “The Propulsion We’re Supplying, It’s Electrifying”, explains that we can take energy from the Sun and use it to power thrusters . The energy is used to ionize gas propellants and fire them out of the thrusters using electric or magnetic fields at ludicrous speed (not quite as fast, closer to light speed) while emitting a pleasant light blue glow. NASA has already demonstrated the use of Electric propulsion with the Dawn mission . Once the Dawn spacecraft entered space, it fired three ion thrusters with Xenon gas fuel and accelerated to Vesta. As it arrived, it slowed itself down by turning around and firing the thrusters to enter the orbit. After orbiting for a year, it fired its thrusters once more and traveled to Ceres to orbit. These maneuvers were only possible by the use of electric propulsion. While these thrusters only generated a small force (0.33 oz.) they could accelerate Dawn all the way up to 60 mph in four days . That may sound slow, but over the course of its eleven-year mission, it can get a lot of speed in the vacuum of space.
Another helpful technology NASA should use is autonomous systems. Autonomous means having the ability to control oneself, rather than being controlled. A system or robot can do this by collecting information from onboard sensors and following prewritten programs to make decisions and act on its own. Buttons do not have to be pressed for it to move. This is very similar to my First Lego League robot which cannot be teleoperated. Autonomy is essential for the different machines participating in this mission because of how far they will be from Earth. Radio signals from Earth to vehicles on Mars can take 5 to 20 minutes to arrive. This is way too long to effectively teleoperate a robot. By using autonomy, the robot would not have to wait several minutes for guidance from humans.
One part of the mission that would have to be autonomous is the descent to the Martian surface. This is the most dangerous part of the mission with several very complicated steps. These steps must be completed perfectly, at the right time or the spacecraft will plummet into the surface of Mars. It would be nearly impossible to control every step remotely because of the time it takes to communicate. For example, when perseverance landed on Mars, it used “Terrain Relative Navigation,”  a type of computer vision. This uses a camera to see different landmarks on the surface of Mars to find its location and recognize a pre-determined landing site. Scientists and engineers have been improving computer vision with machine learning, through the use of neural networks . Neural nets are used to train computers to recognize things or complete a task, by showing the computer several images that the computer can learn from. NASA should consider using neural nets to make the landing more reliable. A neural net would be much more responsive to unexpected conditions, like bad weather, and could find its own landing site, without the aid of pre-selected sites, which could have changed.
The final technology is advanced sensors. Sensors are to all space missions, but are critical to the use of autonomous systems. The Lander Vision System uses a camera, Inertial Measurement Unit, and Flash Lidar, all of which are advanced sensors constantly being improved . There are also many other helpful sensors that can gather data to improve location or orientation information. Another useful sensor is a Sun sensor  which is used in groups of sixteen to determine sun visibility. This is needed to ensure the solar panels face the sun to collect energy for electric propulsion, otherwise the ion thrusters will not have the power needed to run. Overall, improved sensors will increase the odds of a successful sample return mission.
The possibility of returning specimens from Mars is very exciting and inspiring. As we study the specimens on Earth, we will learn more about the solar system and how it was created. This mission is difficult, but it is still possible. Through the use of the three technologies advanced propulsion, autonomous systems, and advanced sensors, this mission can finally be accomplished with ingenuity and hard work!
1. Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Mars Sample Return - Mars Missions - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” NASA, NASA, https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/missions/mars-sample-return-msr
2. Sands, Kelly. “The Propulsion We're Supplying, It's Electrifying.” NASA, NASA, 16 Oct. 2020, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/glenn/2020/the-propulsion-we-re-supplying-it-s-electrifying.
3. “Dawn Spacecraft.” NASA, NASA, 12 Dec. 2018, https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/dawn/technology/spacecraft/.
4. O'Neill, Mike. “Entry, Descent, and Landing: The Most Intense Phase of the Mars Perseverance Rover Mission.” SciTechDaily, 11 Feb. 2021, https://scitechdaily.com/entry-descent-and-landing-the-most-intense-phase-of-the-Mars-perseverance-rover-mission/.
5. Upadhyay, Yash. “Computer Vision: A Study on Different CNN Architectures and Their Applications.” Medium, AlumnAI Academy, 29 Mar. 2019, https://medium.com/alumnaiacademy/introduction-to-computer-vision-4fc2a2ba9dc.
6. Johnson, A., and Golombek, M., “Lander Vision System for Safe and Precise Entry Descent and Landing,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, https://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/marsconcepts2012/pdf/4341.pdf .
7. “Sensors.” NASA, NASA, https://Mars.nasa.gov/mro/mission/spacecraft/parts/gnc/sensors/, 14 Mar. 2022.