A universe of possibilities
Paly freshman takes first place in Space Settlement Contest
It may be a little while before Tim Han's idea for an anti-matter linear accelerator that uses human waste to power a space station the size of Palo Alto is realized.
But the originality of the idea probably helped the Palo Alto High School freshman earn first prize in the NASA-sponsored Space Settlement Contest.
"I think this is the future," Han, 14, said of the "International Space Station of Corazon," his design for the contest.
The competition challenged 547 students from around the world — grouped into two divisions of grades 6 to 9 and 10 to 12 — to design structures that would support human colonies orbiting in space. Students could enter in teams or, like Han, individually.
A single grand-prize award is given to the best design, which is posted on the NASA Ames Research Center Web site. Han, one of two first-place individual winners, will attend an awards ceremony with other honorees at Moffett Field on June 20. Destino Magnus, a Jordan Middle School team, received an honorable mention in the contest as well.
Al Globus, a contractor for NASA and the competition's co-founder, said the contest was designed 13 years ago to train the generation that will build such settlements.
"By the time (the students) get to work on this, they're going to have thought about it for a decade," Globus said. "Of course, it's also going to help them get excited about physics."
Han first entered the contest in 2004 with two other students as part of a Space Settlement class at Jordan Middle School. He didn't want to join the class at first, he said, but was urged to by his father.
"I realized after awhile that I liked it and had a talent for it," Han said. He won first place in that contest as well, and third place when he competed again in 2005.
Han says the structure envisioned for the 2006 competition is designed to support about 2,000 people in orbit around Jupiter. Inhabitants would live in one of two tori — doughnut shaped structures — that would spin constantly to produce gravity. The two tori would be connected by the feces-powered linear accelerator, which would pass through the sphere of central command that houses government offices.
"That kind of originality, particularly in the 6-9 (group), probably got him some points," Globus said.
Han's design also features solar panels, a "highly protected prison located miles away from our citizens," steel alloy casing and a magnetic field to prevent radiation from harming inhabitants, an agriculture center, and a shuttle docking site for those traveling to or from Earth or between settlements.
While Globus says that many of Han's ideas are infeasible — yet very creative — for the first space colony, a lot of it is on the right track and may appear in space settlements in the near future.
"It's quite plausible that, in the long term, more people will live in orbit than on Earth," Globus said. "It's been looked at carefully enough to know that there's nothing in the physics preventing you from doing it, but there are a lot of difficult — and probably expensive — engineering challenges."
Han plans on entering the world of aerospace engineering in the future and working out these challenges. But first, he plans on winning the grand prize for the contest next year.
Editorial Intern Andrew Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.