Girls dream up engineering solutions to ‘hack’ human colonization of Mars

Once the stuff of science fiction, a human landing on Mars is something many scientists today might see before they retire. On Saturday, local teenagers turned to the next challenge: keeping human colonists alive on the inhospitable Red Planet.

On Saturday, around fifty high school and college girls gathered for the third annual “hackathon” at the Académie Notre-Dame. of Peace, a Catholic school for girls in North Park. Teams of girls who started the day as strangers brainstormed engineering solutions to sustain long-term human life on the barren, freezing surface of Earth’s planetary neighbor.

“Our hope for today is that you can problem-solve collaboratively and make new friends,” student co-organizer Ainsley Savant told the groups at the start of the event.

Hackathons, a term coined some 20 years ago in Silicon Valley, are meetings of scientists or engineers who collaborate for a day or more to create a project or propose a solution to a problem.

On Saturday, groups of five or six girls — many from different schools — were assigned to a table and given a type of problem that must be solved to sustain human life on Mars. The challenges concerned necessities such as air, water, energy, transport and food.

Each group spent approximately four hours preparing a presentation of their ideas, then submitted them to a panel of judges. There was a gift bag of matching prizes for each member of the winning team.

In a talk before the groups got to work, keynote speaker Debra Simmons, retired chief systems engineer for the new James Webb Space Telescope, said every successful mission in space requires many, many people. and huge cooperation.

“Be a great team member,” she said. “Earn the respect and trust of other members of your team and you will accomplish a lot.

One of Saturday’s groups – tasked with devising a viable energy source to power human colonies on the dusty, dimly lit surface of Mars – said they were strangers before the hackathon.

Although none of the five girls dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer or a space explorer, they have leaned into the job.

While munching on candy on Mars, the team studied the climate on Mars and existing energy sources that could function without constant human support in perilous conditions.

For example, they said, wind and dust on Mars could block the light from panels if dust accumulates – and relying on humans to clean equipment would be dangerous and impractical.

“We have to empathize with the people who will be living there, and they will probably have other things to do than clean the solar panels,” said Amelia Oden, 16.

Another girl on the team, Francis Aguliar, 14, wondered if the solar panels we use on Earth would also work on Mars.

“Do the panels have to be a bit more powerful because there’s less sun?” she asked.

The girls drew sketches of wind turbines and conical solar panels that would use gravity or possibly rotate to stay relatively dust-free. They discussed how the materials to build the equipment would be transported to Mars and whether humans could assemble the structures on the planet.

The team had fun working together, but in the end, the groups that worked on waste, water, and clothing solutions finished on top. The list of winners was not immediately available.

About Jonathan J. Kramer

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