High School Scientist Develops Spacecraft Software

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New Mexico high school student Erika DeBenedictis took first place in this year's Intel Science Talent Search. DeBenedictis discusses how she won $100,000 in prize money by designing a software system to guide spacecraft along the most fuel-efficient route to Venus.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, the electric bicycle. But first, investigating drug-resistant cancer cells, wiping out mosquitoes carrying Dengue Fever, turning off a gene to block breast cancer cells from spreading. They all sound like the projects of a Nobel Prize winner, don't they? But in fact they're all high schoolers, finalists in this year's Intel Science Talent Search, and these teams are solving problems in medicine, physics and math.

Many of them are doing research from their own homes, and the prize, the grand prize, is $100,000. Past finalists have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. Maybe my next guest will too.

Joining us now is this year's first-place winner of the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search. Erika DeBenedictis is a student at the Albuquerque Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. ERIKA DeBENEDICTIS (Student, Albuquerque Academy): Hi, thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Tell us about your project.

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Well, in my project, I'm researching ways to plan paths for spacecraft so that they can travel throughout the solar system for extremely reduced fuel requirements.

FLATOW: And why do we need that?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Well, currently kind of the mindset is that you're just going to blast your way all the way to the next planet, and obviously that'll get you there faster, but it's not the best way to do it.

If you can cleverly plan your path so that you're always essentially falling toward the closest planet, you can get around the solar system with essentially no fuel.

FLATOW: So when you're saying you plan your path toward falling toward the closest planet, you've found a way to calculate a path to fall toward those planets?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Well, these paths are very, very difficult to calculate, and they're not always obvious to see. So the analogy I like to use is that on Earth we have sailing ships, which use winds and currents, which are kind of natural energy sources instead of fuel.

And in the same way, we can use the gravity and movement of planets to navigate the solar system without fuel.

FLATOW: Don't we have these already, these planet boosts that we send spaceships around the solar system on?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Yeah, so that's called the slingshot effect, and it's extremely useful for spacecraft, especially when they're trying to get to outer planets.

What I'm doing is I'm kind of connecting that to an even lower-energy type of orbit, and the end goal of my project is to be able to get these spacecraft to do a gravity assist so that they can travel throughout the solar system.

FLATOW: So if you can find a way to work the different, to sort of play off the different bodies in space, the moon, the sun, the other planets, you think you can find a very low-energy way of getting spacecraft to fly through them.

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: That is exactly what I'm trying to do.

FLATOW: And you've done one for the planet Venus. That was your entry, right?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Yeah, so what I've done in my project was I developed a software system that would allow a spacecraft both to calculate and fly these paths, and I found that it's quite possible to get to Venus using these orbits in a very reasonable amount of time.

FLATOW: Well, walk me through it. How would the spacecraft do that?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Okay, so say we want to build a small exploration craft, maybe five cubic feet. We put on an ion drive, which would provide tiny amounts of thrust but for 60 years. We'd put on a few cameras and a big antenna.

Then what would happen is the spacecraft would use these low-energy paths to maneuver out of Earth's gravity wells and toward Venus using tiny little correctional thrusts from the ion drive, and eventually it would get to Venus and be able to do a gravity assist and be on its way to whatever planet we want to visit next.

FLATOW: Wow, can a spacecraft tweet back to us what it's doing?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: That would be fantastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I bet if you designed it today, you would've put something like that in there. How long have you been working on this?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: This is actually my second year researching this topic. My first year, I researched it my sophomore year, and I just thought it was so cool, the idea that you could have, you know, the lone spacecraft traveling the solar system all by itself. And so my senior year, I decided to kind of revisit the subject area.

FLATOW: You know, we keep hearing about the idea of a solar sail, where, you know, you use the wind coming out of the sun to blow could you do that with a craft of your design?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Yeah, so actually there were two types of continuous propulsion engines that I was considering. The one I chose was the ion drive because it's a slightly similar easier example. But you could absolutely also use a solar sail for the same purpose.

FLATOW: Would these spacecraft have crew on them, or are they just going to be robotic?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: No, so low-energy paths are always going to be slower than just using the fuel and blasting your way all the way to Mars. So the idea is that if you wanted to have, say, a manned mission to Mars, you would send cargo ships with supplies on low-energy orbits ahead of time, and they would be there waiting for the astronauts.

But astronauts are kind of perishable. So you want to get them there as fast as possible.

FLATOW: Yeah, you hate it when that happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: They die on you.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's a bad thing. Where else besides Venus? What would be your ideal tour that you could send a spacecraft through?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Actually, there's a lot of interest in the moons of Jupiter for low-energy orbits. So as I said, since low-energy orbits thrive in areas where there's lots of planets and lots of gravity, Jupiter is great because it has tons of moons. And there are really interesting studies about ways to tour all of the moons of Jupiter. And so I think that would be a really fascinating place to plan a trajectory for a spacecraft.

FLATOW: You know, I remember in my old days in math and physics, going way back, there used to be something called the three-body problem.


FLATOW: Right, gravity of three different bodies. I mean, if you're going out to all those moons out there, aren't you isn't that a tremendous computing-power problem, to calculate all that?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Absolutely. So actually, the traditional way of studying low-energy orbits is by writing down differential equations, which are solutions to two-body problems. So all you can consider are Earth and the moon.

And you're absolutely right. When you get more bodies, even when you just throw in the sun, or when you're at Jupiter and you have five or six bodies, the paths gets so much more interesting and so much more effective.

And so I was taking a simulation-based approach. So I was able to factor in all of those planets.

FLATOW: How did you get computing power, enough computing power to do that?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Well, actually, one time I asked my dad for a multi-core computer for Christmas, and I got it. So I have a quad-core desktop at home, and I was able to calculate these paths. It takes a long time but it is very compute intensive, but of course the spacecraft would have days to calculate these. So it's fine.

FLATOW: You know, when I was doing experiments like this, I used to always go to companies and ask them to lend me their equipment.


FLATOW: Were you able to do that? Could you borrow computing power from somebody or other people or equipment?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Yeah, so you know, I live in New Mexico, and New Mexico is actually a really great place to get time on a supercomputer. We even have this contest called New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge, and the idea is that they want high school students to be interested in computer science.

I didn't happen to run this on a supercomputer, but there are definitely a lot of resources available to me in New Mexico.

FLATOW: And so where would you like to go from here? What kind of career would you like?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: You know, I think the private space industry is a really cool idea. One of the applications of my project is asteroid mining. You could send a cargo ship out to the asteroid field and bring it back full of ore with essentially no fuel, which might actually make it profitable.

And I think that the private space industry will be serving a much larger role in space exploration in the near future, and that might be a career that I would look into.

FLATOW: What are you going to do with this big wad of cash you just got?

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: It's not that big when you consider how expensive college is.

FLATOW: That's true.

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: So I mean, I'm an expensive kid. I want to go to Cal Tech, MIT or Harvard, and it's going to cost money. So all of that will go to college.

FLATOW: Well, you tell them you've been on SCIENCE FRIDAY and they'll compete for you, and they'll give you maybe it'll get you a scholarship someplace.

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Well, we'll see. I hope so.

FLATOW: All right. Good luck to you, Erika.

Ms. DeBENEDICTIS: Thank you.

Erika DeBenedictis is a student at the Albuquerque Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and she is the winner, the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search winner.

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