VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize Category Winners Announced

VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize Category Winners Announced

The chance to work at NASA is a step closer for four talented Australian undergraduate students. After a rigorous review process, four category winners have been selected for the VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize, and the opportunity to spend 10 weeks working with a NASA scientist or engineer as part of the NASA Academy Program in 2011.

The students selected are an example of the quality research being conducted in Australian universities, and the diversity of space science and engineering. This year's projects included a robot that could map the surface of Mars or a mine in Australia; a computer program that could be used to analyse the atmospheric conditions on other planets or improve long-range rainfall predictions; a data acquisition system for rockets launched at the Woomera Test Range in South Australia; and an analysis of ice-sheets on Mars.

NASA will review the four applications and announce the winner early March. The category winners were asked to explain their research topic and what winning their category, and the chance to attend the NASA Academy, meant to them.

Space Engineering:
Joel Cappelli from the University of Sydney
CliffRider: The Abseiling Face Inspection Robot

The future of robotic planetary exploration lies in the ability of mobile robots to access geographically diverse terrain. Cliff faces and rocky slopes offer a chronological insight into the planetary surface and a wealth of scientifically interesting information. CliffRider is a novel and unique robotic system that has the capability of abseiling steep, crater like terrain. It can transport a suite of sensors that can extract useful data from an inclined surface. With further development of the concept – an autonomous co-operative system variant can be employed in future space expeditions.

I am particularly proud that my invention and ideas have been well received and appreciated. Earning this prestigious category award has reinforced my motivation to further refine and roll the CliffRider concept on to the world stage. The opportunity to work at NASA would be a once in a life time experience that I would embrace and build upon. Being at the forefront of scientific discovery and research – the prospect of being exposed to and contributing to such an agency is tremendously exciting.   

Geology and Planetary Geology:
Emily Bathgate from the University of Technology Sydney
Sub-ice Volcanism on Mars

The northern hemisphere of Mars has been postulated to have once hosted an ancient ocean, possibly frozen, totally or in part. If this ocean existed we would expect to find lacustrine and marine environments north of the crustal dichotomy. The project on which I worked for my Honours entailed searching for sub-ice volcanic constructs along the Martian crustal dichotomy in an area bounded by co-ordinates 110-121°E; 0-13°N. Where found, these features allowed us to infer the presence of ice-sheets in the Northern Plains of Mars at the time of formation of the volcanic constructs. Furthermore, we postulated that the platforms we observed in some of the volcanoes indicated the locations where the volcanoes emerged from the ice, and thus used the platform elevations as proxies to determine the level of the ice-sheets. We calculated a mean platform elevation of -1701 m, which is consistent with earlier estimates of the level of the Martian ocean, as determined from observations of other types of geological features. We are conducting further investigations and additional measurements, to constrain more precisely the location and level of the ice-sheets.

I am extremely excited and humbled having won my category, and I am very much looking forward to the possibility of working at NASA for 10 weeks. I have always dreamed of being involved with space exploration, which I hope to make my career. The opportunity to study at the NASA Space Academy is the first step toward the realisation of this dream.

Space Physics and Astrophysics:
Kate Snow from the University of Wollongong
Determining the Vertical Profile of Reflectivity for Long-Range Radar Measurements

My research involved devising a means to determine the Vertical Profile of Reflectivity (VPR) from long-range rainfall data by radar. The VPR describes the variation of the reflectivity of rainfall with altitude due to changes in hydrometer properties and is essential for accurate surface rainfall measurement’s. Due to convolutions of the beam profile, observation limitations due to the curvature of the earth and beam broadening with range, there was previously no method to determine the VPR from long-range radar observations (beyond approximately 65km). This provides a significant limitation to qualitative precipitation estimates when the rain band approaches from far afield and comes within the radars range which is approximately 140km. 

The method devised provides a significant improvement to current long-range techniques and will allow for the next generation of VPR correction techniques. This is most advantageous not only for radar rainfall measurements and predictions, but for satellite measurements and possibly NASA research areas such as TRMM.

As this years Space Physics and Astrophysics category winner, I am delighted by the prospect of possibly working at NASA. Such an endeavour would allow me to further my goal which is ultimately to seek to advance our understanding of science. Receiving the VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize would allow me to share my research knowledge and ideas and be presented with one of the greatest learning opportunities imaginable as I collaborate with some of the top research minds in the area.

Data Processing and Electronics:
Matthew Steventon from the University of Adelaide
ASRI Multi-Stage Launch Vehicle: Mechatronics

My role was to design and build a data acquisition system for use in experimental sounding rockets, to be launched from the Woomera Test Range in South Australia. The overall goal of the system was to record inertial and environmental data to verify simulations as well as to transmit GPS coordinates to aid in the recovery of the rocket. This was the first student system to successfully complete all of the required objectives and resulted in the rapid recovery of the rocket after the launch.

Being a category winner makes me very proud and I feel that all of the effort that I put into my final year project has been significantly appreciated. The possibility of undertaking a research project with NASA is very exciting and will give me an opportunity to pursue my dreams and contribute to a very exciting field.

The prize is supported by:

Victorian Space Science Education Centre
Optus Satellites
Engineers Australia National Committee for Space Engineering
Geological Society of Australia Specialist Group in Planetary Science
La Trobe University
Victoria University
The University of Sydney
Australian Centre for Field Robotics
Swinburne University of Technology
Swinburne Astronomy Online
The University of Melbourne
Planetary Sciences Institute
Australian Academy of Science National Committee for Space Science
University of South Australia
Institute for Telecommunications Research
Curtin University of Technology
Monash University
Monash School of Geoscience
University of New South Wales
Australian Centre for Astrobiology
Mars Society of Australia
Australian Space Research Institute
Australian Space Industry Chamber of Commerce
National Space Society of Australia