IrishSat wins first place in NASA Starshade Challenge

Author: Karla Cruise

IrishSat wins first place in NASA Starshade Challenge
From left to right: Orianna Saade, Joseph Muraski, Grace Conneely, Sean Kerr

IrishSat, a student club dedicated to the development of space technology, has been awarded first place in the nationwide NASA-sponsored Starshade Undergraduate Challenge. The competition tasks students groups with contributing to the design of a space structure that blocks starlight, allowing telescopes to observe distant planets.

Notre Dame’s Department of Physics and Astronomy initiated and provided academic mentorship to the winning team, all of whom are engineering majors. Team members were senior Grace Conneely, the project’s chief engineer, sophomore Sean Kerr and freshmen Orianna Saade and Joseph Muraski took home the $10,000 prize.

“The ideas we’ve developed by participating in the Starshade Challenge may one day evolve into real world technologies,” said Conneely. “It's provided us with a design experience we may never have had otherwise.”

Ground-based telescopes are limited to seeing the light emitted by giant planets the size of Jupiter, said Jeffrey Chilcote, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Notre Dame and faculty advisor for the starshade project. This limitation necessitates the need for a starshade.

“With a starshade, the next generation of extremely large telescopes currently under construction could discover and then observe the water and oxygen on the closest earth-like planets,” he said.

NASA’s recently designed starshade resembles a giant sunflower—24 light-diffracting “petals” surround a dark, light-blocking center. Once deployed in the earth’s orbit, the structure aligns itself between the target star and a ground-based telescope. To function properly, the starshade must be slightly larger than a football field, which makes it too heavy and bulky to be launched or deployed cost-effectively.

NASA’s Starshade Challenge asked students to address this problem.

“Our starshade had to be rigid enough to withstand launch vibrations, acceleration, and three years in orbit, while remaining very lightweight,” said Conneely.

In the team’s winning design, compressed air inflates a web of tubes, causing the starshade to open in space like a flat parasol. Auto-locking hinge mechanisms secure the structure in place, and a lightweight aluminum composite reinforces the edges of the starshade’s thin plastic petals.

Competition rules required each design decision—from structural dimensions to the choice of materials—be justified with hand calculations (i.e. without the aid of computers). This ensured a simpler, more verifiable approach to the design. Once their design was complete, the team built a model, 1/33 the size of the real object.

“The best instrumentation engineers are those who understand the science behind what they are building,” said Chilcote. “IrishSat's interest in building hardware and desire to understand the drivers behind the engineering work they are doing made them an ideal team to work with.”