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Take the 2nd STEM Challenge: plan a space mission in Earth's solar system

Where do you want to boldly go? As part of the Evening Standard’s STEM Project, we’re setting a series of challenges for young people, asking how science, technology, engineering and maths skills can be used to solve problems.

For our second STEM challenge, we’d like you to be inspired by Professor Michele Dougherty – principal investigator for the European Space Agency’s Juice mission to Jupiter’s largest moon – and plan a space mission to a destination within Earth’s solar system.

Once you’ve made your plan, create a poster outlining the key elements: your destination, scientific purpose, how you’d get there, and what cargo you need to take.

Illustrate your plan with drawings and pictures, perhaps showing your mission spacecraft and the planet, moon, asteroid, comet or other celestial body it will visit.

You could do that using paper and pens, or you could use Canva or other graphic design software.

Destination

Human space exploration is focused on the Earth’s solar system: our sun, its planets and other celestial bodies including moons, asteroids and comets.

Simon Foster, a solar terrestrial physicist and TV presenter who works at Imperial College London’s Space Lab, suggests choosing a destination that hasn’t been visited by other missions.

There have been numerous missions to Earth’s moon and the planet Mars, for instance.

“We always look to go somewhere we haven’t been before,” says Simon. “How about Venus? It’s very hot [surface temperature: more than 400C/752F]. How would you overcome that challenge?”

Richard Baughen, a space instruments engineer at Imperial College London, suggests considering a destination in the outer solar system: the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and their moons (more than 200, at the last count).

Beyond that lies the Kuiper belt, a vast ring of debris similar to an asteroid belt in which the largest known object is the dwarf planet Pluto. There may be many more dwarf planets in the Kuiper belt — possibly thousands — we just don’t know.

There has been relatively little human exploration of the outer solar system because it’s so far away: the New Horizons mission spent nine years getting to Pluto and the Kuiper belt.”

[Exploring the outer solar system] is really exciting in terms of the potential for life-changing discoveries — big, huge discoveries,” says Baughen.

“There’s so much out there. Until we go there and have a look we won’t know.”

Scientific purpose

Why are you going to your chosen destination? What goal do you want to achieve?

Nasa’s Apollo programme succeeded in its objective of putting the first humans on the moon. Since then no humans have travelled beyond Earth’s orbit, and space missions have been conducted by robotic satellites.

They focus on scientific goals and learning more about our solar system: studying planets, moons or other objects looking for signs of alien life and whether the destination is habitable by humans (the main objective of the Juice satellite).

You could also go looking for valuable minerals — such as gold, zinc and platinum — that could be mined and brought back to earth or used for construction in space. Or you may decide to go somewhere because it hasn’t been visited yet just to find out what’s there.

Getting there

Robotic satellites are launched on large chemical-fuelled rockets to reach Earth’s orbit. These are jettisoned before the satellite proceeds on its journey into space, where smaller chemical or electric powered thrusters make speed and course adjustments. Electricity for computers and other equipment is supplied by solar panels or small nuclear generators.

This existing technology is the tried and tested way of getting to your destination — we know it works.

However, we also know its limitations. If you want to travel faster, further, carry more cargo, have more powerful on-board systems and make it easier to send humans on missions, you might need to consider new technologies.

Examples of experimental space propulsion technology include: rockets powered by nuclear fission or fusion; solar sails; antimatter engines.

One of the biggest limitations on space vehicles launched from Earth is the power and speed needed to escape the planet’s gravitational field. What if you built your space craft on the moon, using locally sourced materials and fuel?

Cargo

Think about equipment you’ll need to achieve your mission’s scientific goal.

You’ll want instruments to measure and record the physical environment at your destination. And, if you decide to send humans on your mission you’ll need a bigger vehicle for them to live in, with an oxygen supply and other essential life-support systems.

And some handy advice…

Richard Baughen, 29, who is working on the Juice mission to Jupiter, says: “Keep it as simple as you can.

“In engineering we often say ‘what will be the simplest solution?’, because that’s probably going to be the best one.

“If you’ve got a primary goal and you achieve it then that’s all you need to do, don’t overcomplicate it.”

We can’t wait to see what you come up with.

You can email us your posters: stem.challenge@standard.co.uk

Good luck!

About The STEM Project

The Future London STEM Project highlights the impact of science, technology, engineering and maths on the world. Working with universities and learning organisations, we’re setting a series of STEM challenges for young people which ask readers to think about how they might solve a real-life problem. 

This project is supported financially by Huawei, who share our aim to make STEM subjects accessible and exciting for all. Our journalism remains independent.

This project is part of the Evening Standard’s Future London initiative, which looks for solutions to some of the biggest issues facing the capital.

Source: Evening Standard Business News

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