Teen space explorers enter Google Science Fair regional finals

Credit: Google Science Fair

Credit: Google Science Fair

Young space explorers from Europe and the United States became regional finalists in the 2015 Google Science Fair with projects ranging from spacecraft engineering to astrophysics to exobiology (life on other worlds).

Google created the competition four years ago to encourage science education among teenagers around the world. Earlier this year students aged 13-18 enrolled at the competition's website and uploaded documentation of their research. In August the jury will name the Global Finalists as well as the Grand Prize winner - who gets a $50,000 scholarship. Yesterday the Google Science Fair announced the 90 Regional Finalists:

Five of those Regional Finalists had space-related themes:

Life on Mars - American teens Rajiv Nelakanti and Alexander Ivanov found bacteria that could survive on Mars. The conditions on Mars would kill most Earthly organisms instantly. But some organisms can survive in very extreme environments here on Earth. The teens placed three bacteria cultures in a chamber under Mars-like conditions. One species of Anabaena survived the experiment. Future research could genetically engineer the cyanobacteria to produce oxygen on Mars.

Mining for Quasars - American teen Pranav Sivakumar data-mined the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s archive for signs of quasar lensing. With the right geometry a massive star or black hole acts like a telescope, letting astronomers see much more distant objects. Sivakumar wrote software algorithms to search for these gravitational lenses in the SDSS archives. The code mapped almost half a million quasars - active black holes at the center of galaxies - with about a million neighboring objects. The code identified all of the known quasar lenses and identified several new candidates. Follow-up observations using the Subaru Telescope confirmed the existence of one of these candidates.

Geoengineering Climate Change - Ukrainian Danela Kuznetsov proposes shielding Earth from sunlight using an interplanetary dust cloud. Grinding up an asteroid at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point would create a cloud of dust that absorbs some sunlight before it reaches Earth.  A combination of electromagnetic fields would dynamically control the cloud’s size and density. Kuznetsov created a computer simulation to model the dust cloud and determine the optimal size - 150 kilometers - to balance anthropogenic climate change.

Cosmic Ray Acceleration - Slovakian Michaela Brchnelova researched the process that accelerates cosmic ray particles to their extreme speeds. These heavy particles are formed in supernovae, but even those extreme explosions can’t accelerate cosmic rays to their observed speeds. One theory suggests locally amplified magnetic fields act like particle accelerators to boost the speed of charged particles. Brchnelova analyzed filaments in the shockwave of the Tycho supernova remnant. The results show that the filaments had to have been created through magnetic field amplification - further evidence that this process could explain the cosmic ray mystery.

Open Source Satellite - Briton Matthew Reid created the ArduOrbiter, an open-source spacecraft that could make educational satellite projects more affordable. Moore’s Law and the commodification of technology reduced the cost of satellites dramatically, but $30,000 PocketQubes aren’t exactly cheap. Reid built an engineering model using an Arduino-based processor to test his design. He is now building a flight model and hopes to raise funds to cover the launch costs. 

Spacecraft Landing System - Turkish teenager Metehan Emlik designed an improved system for landing spacecraft on irregular objects. After the harpoon system failed to control   the Philae’s landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the spacecraft bounced and wedged itself in a cliff face. Emlik proposed deploying small marker modules in advance of the landing. The module’s circular rings would have a black-and-white pattern and emit radio signals to let the lander combine two ranging methods. Emlik custom-built a quadrocopter to test his system.

At least one of these space projects stands to win the Virgin Galactic Pioneer Award - an expenses-paid tour of the space company's California test facility.