‘We beat out the entire world’: Makua Lani takes top honors in NASA space settlement contest

  • Makua Lani students show a component of their award winning space station design. Special to West Hawaii Today

  • Makua Lani students Christian Taniyama-Mento, left and Austin Pham work on their award winning space station project. Special to West Hawaii Today

A small, private school in Kona recently took top honors in the National Space Society Space Settlement Contest administered by NASA Ames Research Center.

Makua Lani Christian Academy’s AeroSpace Meridian won the society’s international grand prize in the contest, competing against almost 7,000 students from 22 nations.

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The requirement of this project was to design a space station. Their ASM Venus design was a cylindrical structure situated in orbit around Psyche 16 in the Asteroid Belt, with the goal of taking advantage of its metal-rich composition for mining resources that can aid in further manufacturing and expansion throughout the solar system. Some highlights of their submission included a novel and patent-pending self-healing shield for protection against high-velocity particles, an automatic soil moisture detection system with demonstrated Arduino code, and the team even built their own working ground station.

Two members of the Aerospace Meridian team, along with a teacher and co-teacher, submitted the patent for spacecraft shielding. The lead inventor is junior Andrew Olafsrud and the second inventor is senior Austin Pham.

“We had the initial idea of the invention and then we had to get the specific style and that made everything exponentially more complex,” said Pham.

With the space station project, they needed a shield and Olafsrud came up with a sphere design.

They had brainstorming sessions to develop the shield thinking about different designs they could do.

“It was like what is the best way to stop a bullet because in space you have little tiny micrometeorites traveling at the speed of light,” Pham explained. “But they have comparable kinetic energy as bullets, so what we were trying to do is bring body armor into space where it can stop radiation and the ballistics of the micrometeorites.”

“It started out as a space club where they would meet after school and work on this kind of things about three years ago,” said Principal Sandy Butler. “The space club developed into a class, ‘intro to aerospace engineering.’ They just keep running with it and winning contests.”

Butler said the students spent a copious amount of time after school and on weekends working on the project.

The shield’s main premise is an initial outer layer made of Dyneema, an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene that is stronger than Kevlar, followed by a layer of hardened plastic orbs of various sizes.

“When a micrometeorite hits the outer layer, there is going to be a hole. The spheres are perfectly shaped to slide into the hole and clog it up, so it becomes self healing as well. That’s one of the main selling points of our shield,” said Pham. “It gets hit, stops the projectile and then repairs itself immediately.”

In between the layer they have polyethylene glycol with suspended silica particles, which acts like an oobleck.

The final layer is also made of Dyneema.

With a slight design addition, they believe their invention could also have earthly applications.

“It could stop bullets or high speed projectiles,” explained Pham.

Butler said she is in awe of the students.

“I don’t know how they do it. They have a vision for it and they put it into action. It just amazes me.”

In addition to taking grand prize at the Space Settlement Contest, the students won placements in the NASA HUNCH competition in April. NASA HUNCH is a program run by NASA that teaches engineering to high school students. This competition requires students to design and prototype engineering concepts that NASA will use in the present or near future. One team invented a mechanism by which astronauts can eat during a spacewalk — with their helmets on and without the use of their hands. They won as finalists, the highest possible outcome. As such, these students presented their invention to a group of NASA engineers on April 28. NASA engineers praised their work as “original” and flexible.

Presenting as finalists means that elements of their engineering will potentially be used in space by NASA in the near future. Non-space use of their invention means that the students and the school will be given patent rights.

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“It was amazing. We beat out the entire world,” said Pham of the NSS contest. “Our school has been blessed. We have been able to succeed through hard work and miracles.”

To view their submission, visit space.nss.org/settlement/nasa/Contest/Results/2021/ASM-Venus.pdf

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