Students to identify stars in shuttle contest


Many people will soon be thanking their lucky stars. Literally.

The Texas Engineering Experiment Station's (TEES) Commercial Space Center for Engineering (CSCE) has joined forces with NASA, the Texas A&M University Department of Aerospace Engineering, SPACEHAB Inc. and the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists (MAES) to offer a star-identifying contest to high school students and space enthusiasts alike.

The StarNav Contest, which will begin when space shuttle mission STS-107 launches in mid-January 2003, is the first real-time competition that allows users to interact with information coming directly from a space shuttle.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to combine spacecraft navigation with an educational opportunity," said Dr. John Junkins, Texas A&M aerospace engineering professor and principal investigator of the StarNav project. "It should be a lot of fun for those participating."

Astronauts use images taken from a star tracker, a computerized digital camera that takes pictures of stars, to aid navigation in space. Once the star tracker has taken pictures, a computer algorithm - or math formula - creates space maps and determines a spacecraft's orientation. Just as stars used to be the only way ships could navigate the oceans, they are still the preferred method of navigation in space.

The StarNav Contest will post to the Internet the same pictures the star tracker takes for the astronauts. Contestants can access these pictures and determine which group of stars the star tracker captured. The first contestant who accurately identifies the group of stars pictured within the given time frame will be awarded prizes, including money or a patch taken on the mission.

During the mission there will be three contests, each one with a different level of difficulty. StarNav Contests One ("Star Pattern") and Two ("Shuttle Orientation") are open to all U.S. students in grades nine through 12 during the 2002-03 school year. In the Star Pattern contest, students will have 24 hours to identify two star images. The Shuttle Orientation contest, which is more difficult than the Star Pattern contest, will require students to identify in 24 hours a different group of stars using tables and a star image provided.

The third contest, Lost in Space!, is open to anyone who is interested. Participants will have 30 days to use tables and formulas to identify a specific group of stars, which will require the calculation of a complicated algorithm.

"When the contest is over, we would be interested in hearing how the contestant was able to solve the problem," said Dr. Igor Carron, assistant director of the CSCE. "If the winner's algorithm is significantly faster than the one currently used, it could be used in some next-generation star trackers. The algorithm may easily be publication material."

For more information or to register for a contest, see .

As the state's engineering research agency, the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) is engineering a brighter future for Texans. TEES is a member of The Texas A&M University System.

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