HERRIMAN — A radiation shield designed by two Utah high school seniors may be put to the test and sent into space this fall on the first test flight for NASA's Orion space capsule.
Matthew Hansen and Christian Lambert, both 18, found out Wednesday during a live webcast that their NASA Exploration Design Challenge project is one of five finalists chosen from 46 projects across the country.
The challenge was to design a box measuring 7 inches on each side and weighing 7 pounds or less that would shield against radiation — specifically to protect a dosimeter, an instrument that measures radiation exposure.
The seniors, Hansen from Copper Hills High School and Lambert from Riverton High School started working on the project last summer with Matthew Lund, a physics and astronomy teacher at Herriman High School and a nuclear engineering master's student at the University of Utah.
"It's way cool just thinking about it actually being in space and being useful and having your ideas actually used," Hansen said.
NASA astronaut Rex Walheim said the student experiment will be on board during a flight test to see if the radiation shield provides protection from the Van Allen radiation belt, which contains zones of highly energetic-charged particles trapped at high altitudes in the Earth's magnetic field.
"During Exploration Flight Test-1, Orion will make two orbits around the Earth to reach a high-altitude orbit of 3,600 miles above the Earth, traveling a total mission distance of 60,000 statute miles in only four hours," Walheim said.
He said it was a "very difficult" challenge and told all the design teams listening to the webcast that they should be proud of their work.
The challenge highlights the need to develop a radiation protection system for manned spaceflights passing through the intense radiation field surrounding Earth.
Lund said radiation levels are the biggest problem facing manned spaceflights going to the moon or Mars or beyond.
"If we don't come up with better shielding, then the astronauts would have too high of a dose and would not be able to survive," Lund said. "If you look at the Apollo missions, they were only gone for about two weeks and received about a fifth of the dose that radiation workers can get in a year."
It's a big challenge that needs to be figured out, he said.
"It's a pretty amazing opportunity," Lund said. "I've been working with different NASA challenges and NASA programs and one of the things I always wanted to do was send a payload into space and to work with students to get one there."
Lund said he's glad for the opportunity to get students excited about science and the opportunities it provides.
"I'm actually learning something more than I wouldn't until graduate school, basically, so just all of the learning behind it is really fun," said Lambert, who already has plans to attend BYU and then pursue a Ph.D.
Lambert said the crew ran computer simulations to test performances, combinations and thickness of materials. He said he enjoyed the uniqueness and challenge of the project.
"It was a lot of work. We built a pretty big foundation in the summer, working with Mr. Lund, testing different things, learning about the radiation spectrum in space, testing different materials to see what worked and what didn't," said Hansen, who plans to study engineering at Utah State University after serving an LDS mission in Colombia.
Both Hansen and Lambert are confident in their venture.
"I think we have a pretty good product," Hansen said with a grin.
The winning team will be announced April 25 at the United States Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. If chosen, Hansen and Lambert's radiation experiment will fly on the test flight, which they would get to see launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"It doesn't really seem real," Hansen said. "That'd be way cool to see it launch and know that something that I built is on there."
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