Four Red Mountain High School students are being recognized by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for their work in designing potential anti-radiation suits for astronauts.
Paige Lottman, Sam Smith, Jack Baer and Hayden Ferrell are heading to the Virginia NASA Langley Research Center in August to present their gear to government engineers and scientists.
The group is representing the high school’s engineering club, one of five finalist teams for NASA’s Wearable Equipment for Averting Radiation (WEAR) challenge.
“They constantly make us proud. It’s so awesome to see them get outside recognition — especially from something like NASA,” said Red Mountain High School Teacher Adam Middleton.
“This is showing them what the real application of the work they’re doing is — this is not a fictitious or fabricated scenario,” Middleton added. “I’m hoping this is going to continue to fuel their passion for what they’re doing.”
WEAR is a nationwide challenge that invites middle and high school students to help solve “technical problems related to deep space exploration,” according to the space agency.
This year’s goal was to design anti-radiation space gear.
Radiation in space, NASA said, is much different than radiation on earth.
The planet’s atmosphere and magnetosphere protect humans from most radiation. For people outside of earth’s magnetic field, space radiation is a serious threat.
“In space, you get ionizing radiation, which can kind of edit the atoms in your body,” said senior Paige Lottman. “It’s really important to protect yourself from it so you don’t get side effects like cancer.”
When atoms in living cells become ionized, the cells can die, repair themselves or mutate and become cancerous — not all cells will be affected the same way.
There are several forms of ionizing radiation in space, including galactic cosmic radiation, which comes from exploding stars; trapped radiation, which is when radiation becomes stuck in earth’s magnetic field; and solar energetic particles that are released by the sun.
NASA currently protects its astronauts by limiting the amount of time exposed to radiation during spacewalks.
Every astronaut, according to NASA, is required to wear a dosimeter during missions to keep track of the amount of radiation they’ve been exposed to.
Spacecraft are also built with materials that shield against radiation.
For the WEAR challenge, the Red Mountain High students designed a scale-based garment that features 3D-printed scales in groups of nine made out of plastic and tungsten, a chemical element that shields against gamma and x-ray radiation.
A hood is also included to protect the head.
Because radiation can wear down a material over time, the students grouped the scales together so that they can be removed easily and replaced.
“Rather than replacing the whole garment, they can pull off one section and just replace the individual section,” said Middleton.
The idea, explained Middleton, is that astronauts can use 3D printers during space missions and maintain their garments by re-printing the scales as needed.
Each suit is projected to consist of around 200 scales. The production time to make one suit will vary depending on how many printers can be used at a time, the students explained.
Jack Baer, 15, said he thought the most challenging part of the competition was finding a “material solution.”
“To find a solution that was just based on what material we used and how we used it — one of the requirements was that it couldn’t be mechanical — I think was a pretty big challenge,” he said, adding:
“Because the science wasn’t exactly engineering, it was more a material science.”
Sophomore Sam Smith said he thought the most difficult part was narrowing their ideas down to one.
Lottman, who is interested in mechanical engineering and biomechanics, echoed his sentiments.
“The hardest part was limiting down the ideas because everyone had really good ideas and we got to a point where all the ideas we had would work,” she said. “It was really hard to decide which ones we should choose because all of them were providing a lot of the same benefits.”
The top finalists will now have the opportunity to share their designs, learn about the engineering process, participate in STEM engagement activities and tour the research center.
“I know we should be excited about presenting,” said Smith. “But I just want to tour the facility — it’s going to be so fun.”