Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Youths Eye Trip Far Into Space

By Raam Wong
Journal Staff Writer

LOS ALAMOS- Three youths who sent hundreds of simulated spacecraft rocketing toward Mars took top honors Tuesday at the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge.

The team evaluated how to efficiently use the gravitational pull of planets to assist in flying to the far reaches of the solar system.

The first-place prize is the culmination of seven months of collaboration between teammates Kristin Cordwell, 16, and Erika DeBenedictis, 15, both of Albuquerque, and Brian Lott. 17, of Edgewood.

"I would've been glad we did it even if we hadn't won," said Cordwell, moments after the teammates were rewarded with a plaque and $1,000 savings bonds.

Hundreds of competitors from around the state and their teachers filled the Church of Christ in Los Alamos on Tuesday morning for the awards ceremony for the 17th annual competition, open to middle and high school students.

Students used high-performance supercomputers and worked with mentors from the state's national laboratories to complete science projects during the competition, sponsored by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico state government.

The research projects included "Game Theory Applied to a Hostage Crisis" and "E.coli in Hostile Environment."

The latter was presented by Stoyana and Iliana Alexandrova, Los Alamos High School seniors who came in second place. "We were really excited," said Stoyana. "We worked really hard."

Another Los Alamos High team- Jonathan Robey and Dov Shlachter- won third place for "Compressible Fluid Dynamics."

The first-place team developed a program for finding the most time- and energy-efficient routes to reach distant objects in space.

For example, the team evaluated the "slingshot" maneuver in which a planet's gravity is used to boost the sped of a spacecraft traveling nearby and then shoot it off on an altered path.

The team repeatedly tweaked the ingoing trajectory of the spacecraft to affect how close it came to a planet, thereby changing the spacecraft's angle and speed as it zoomed away.

The method has been used by NASA to send probes over great distances that would otherwise be impossible to reach due to time and fuel limitations.

With its program, the budding scientists were repeatedly able to reach faraway planets like Pluto, with a little help from Jupiter on the way.