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Caltech Space Challenge 2019 – Student Competition

The Caltech Space Challenge, a 5-day International student space mission design competition, has opened application for 2019.

The Challenge is a unique opportunity for young and enthusiastic students to build technical and teamwork skills, interact with world-renowed experts in space exploration and connect to like-minded peers from all around the world.

32 talented and highly-motivated students are brought to the Caltech campus to participate in a week-long space mission design competition. The participants are split into two teams and both teams work under the mentorship of experts from industry, NASA and academia to design their mission concept from scratch to final proposal.

The 2019 competition is dedicated to Saturn’s moon Enceladus — initially thought to be a dead body, and the exploration for extraterrestrial life on it.

While in the early days of solar system exploration we hoped to find clues to the question of extraterrestrial life within the habitable zone, recent discoveries of internal heating due to tidal effects have shifted our attention to the satellites of gas giants in the outer solar system like Jupiter and Saturn. In particular, Cassini discovered that an object initially thought to be a dead body is one of the most likely harbors of contemporary extraterrestrial life: Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Cassini’s measurements not only reported evidence for a differentiated interior structure with a subsurface water ocean possibly in contact with the rocky core, it also discovered geyser-like jets in the south polar region of Enceladus, dubbed Tiger Stripes. These jets vent water vapor and solid material from the interior ocean into space. During close flybys Cassini’s mass spectrometer detected complex organic compounds contained in the plumes. This finding fueled speculations about the presence of life in Enceladus’ subsurface ocean, but Cassini’s instrumentation was not designed to detect life, leaving this significant question to be answered by follow-on missions.

Ideally, probing Enceladus for the presence of life means accessing not only its plumes, but also the most likely location of indicative biomolecules: the surface orifices of its geysers, located in the south polar Tiger Stripe region. Given the incomplete knowledge of Enceladus’ surface and its geysers, a classic single-lander mission is too risky. But, what if the risk could be spread among multiple small, cost-effective landers? This will be the guiding question of the 2019 Caltech Space Challenge. In response, participants will create a novel mission design to probe for evidence of the presence of life on Enceladus using a network of small landers.

Invited participants will come to Caltech during spring break 2019 and join one of two sixteen-member teams. Teams have just five days to design their mission from scratch to final proposal. Both teams benefit from working under the mentorship of experienced engineers and managers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and private industry. Additionally, throughout the week leaders from the aerospace sector hold lectures to help students contextualize and solve different aspects of their missions. Finally, at the end of the week a panel of judges from industry, government, and academia selects the winning proposal based on technical merit, innovation, and presentation.

The Caltech Space Challenge was started in 2011 by Caltech graduate students Prakhar Mehrotra and Jonathan Mihaly and was hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) and the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories at Caltech (GALCIT). Participants of the 2011 challenge designed a crewed mission to a Near-Earth Object (NEO). The second edition of the Caltech Space Challenge, held in 2013, developed a crewed mission to a Martian moon. In 2015, participants of the third Caltech Space Challenge were asked to design a mission that would land humans on an asteroid brought into Lunar orbit, extract the asteroid’s resources and demonstrate their use. The fourth edition, held in 2017, challenged participants with the design of Lunarport, a launch and supply station on the Moon for deep space missions.