Park Ridge 6th graders win NASA competition with alligator-shaped space junk collector

The inaugural NASA TechRise Student Challenge is intended to inspire a deeper understanding of space exploration and expose students to careers in science, technology and space exploration.

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The winning team of 6th graders from St. Paul of the Cross. From left to right; Mary Anne Gleason, Keira Demes, Abby Bomely, teacher Karl Ochsner Lily de Tagyos, Renata McCoy.

The winning team of 6th graders from St. Paul of the Cross. From left to right; Mary Anne Gleason, Keira Demes, Abby Bomely, teacher Karl Ochsner Lily de Tagyos, Renata McCoy.

Courtsey Karl Ochsner

Shoot for the moon, and you may just land among the space junk.

At least, that was the case for five 6th graders at St. Paul of the Cross School in Park Ridge.

The all-girl team designed an alligator-shaped space junk collector, with magnetic teeth to chomp down on space trash. The project was among the winners in a nationwide NASA competition.

“We didn’t think we’d win,” said team member Renata McCoy, 11. “We thought we had no chance. … The whole grade went crazy. We were in shock.”

The inaugural NASA TechRise Student Challenge is intended to inspire a deeper understanding of space exploration and expose students to careers in science, technology and space exploration.

The win comes with $1,500 in project funding for the girls and a ticket to space for the space junk collector they’re going to build.

“We are absolutely thrilled and so proud of our students,” said Principal Erika Mickelburgh. “We’re so excited to see what they build. We’re so excited to see it blast off into space.”

The girls’ project was among 57 winners picked from nearly 600 entries and the only Illinois selection. The competition was open to students in middle school or high school; the Park Ridge girls were among the youngest winners.

NASA announced the results Jan. 21 on a livestream as the whole school watched.

Renata said she’s normally more interested in musicals and art than science and math — but her creative background helped her come up with the idea for the alligator-shaped contraption.

“We just wanted to make it more creative, since we’re young,” she said.

alligator_space_junk.jpg

A mock-up of the winning alligator-shaped space junk collector. Drawing by Renata McCoy.

Courtesy Renata McCoy

The out-of-this-world project is scheduled to be on a UP Aerospace rocket being launched from a site in New Mexico in spring 2023.

The students came up with the idea for collecting trash in space themselves after learning about the dangers of orbiting debris in their STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) class.

“They’re kind of like bullets in space, which could hurt any equipment that NASA sends up or even hurt any astronauts,” Karl Ochsner, the school’s STEAM teacher said.

NASA tracks about 27,000 pieces of space junk, usually bits of old, broken satellites and space stations. There are approximately 100 million more pieces of debris too small - the size of a marble or les - to track. Space junk can travel at speeds over 15,000 miles per hour.

“If the space junk isn’t collected in space, it’s going to be like an obstacle course for the astronauts,” said Mary Anne Gleason, 11, another St. Paul team member. “It goes really fast, enough to kill you. ... We wanted to think of something that could actually help people, and it helps space look cleaner. It helps the astronauts. There’s so many differences that it can make.”

The girls designed the prototype over two months, Ochsner said. The final version, produced on a 3-D printer, will include a rotating electromagnet, a system to release the junk and a camera — all contained in a small box that must weigh under 1.1 pounds. The collector also must be programmed to communicate with the rocket to tell when it gets far enough from Earth to operate.

NASA provided a box containing a 3-D printed box, electronic controls and some NASA. The yellow alligator mouth, also shown, is a prototype made by the middler schoolers.

NASA provided a box containing a 3-D printed box, electronic controls and some NASA. The yellow alligator mouth, also shown, is a prototype made by the middler schoolers.

Photo courtesy of Karl Ochsner,

“In science, we learn about Newton’s three laws of gravity, and they remember it to take a test,” Ochsner said. “But when they apply it and build it, that’s where the real learning comes in. It’s something meaningful for them.”

The girls will meet every two weeks with a NASA engineer to help develop their prototype.

“It’s a lot of work, but I know it’s gonna be worth it when it goes to when it launches into space,” Mary Anne said.

Last week, the girls were honored at a special school Mass, where they received a starter kit from NASA, including electronic controls and a polycarbonate 3-D printed box their completed project will go to space in.

Win or lose, Ochsner said, his students would have gotten a lot out of the competition.

“I told them that just creating a proposal for NASA is a great experience for them that they can use when they’re applying for high schools and even college, saying, ‘I made a proposal to NASA,’” Ochsner said. “But now that they’ve won and actually have something going up into space ... for any job application, you can mention that.”

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