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Clarkson, Uruguayan students design space shuttles, take third place at NASA contest

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POTSDAM — With a little help from some colleagues in Uruguay, Clarkson University students were able to shoot for the stars in a contest sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

A team of eight Clarkson students and four Uruguayan students from Montevideo’s Universidad ORT and Universidad de la República recently took third place in NASA’s 2011 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage contest. The contest, which was held from June 6 to 8 in Cocoa Beach, Fla., required the students to engineer an innovative solution to a space-themed challenge.

“They did a great job,” wrote Piergiovanni Marzocca, an associate professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at Clarkson and the team’s co-adviser. “I’m very pleased with the collaboration that we initiated with the group from Uruguay. They’re exceptionally good and talented students.”

Collaborating via emails and Skype video calls, the two groups of students designed a safe and cost-effective model for launching manned missions to Mars and establishing colonies in outer space. Their project focused on the creation of several individualized space shuttles, some with the capability to capture asteroids in mid-flight to mine resources and fuel.

The unlikely partnership came about after Clarkson’s team, which is funded by the college’s Student Projects for Engineering Experience and Design program and has attended the NASA forum for the past several years, was unable to qualify for the 2011 contest. When the Uruguayan team needed an American university to sponsor it in the competition, the two groups joined forces and entered the contest together.

“Most of (the Uruguayan students) were architects and were really good at graphic design, and, for the past few years, Clarkson hasn’t really had that niche of graphic designers,” said Megan L. Williams, an aeronautical engineering major and rising senior at Clarkson. “They have some neat ideas and they really think outside the box,” Ms. Williams said. “I think it’s a really good resource.”

The students, who began researching their project in the fall, based most of their work on guidance from faculty members and scientific articles found online. The NASA forum was not all work and no play, though: while in Florida, the students toured the Kennedy Space Center and saw Space Shuttle Atlantis as it sat on the launch pad.

“It is fun, but it does have practical applications,” Ms. Williams said about the contest. “You get to know a lot of people who are involved at NASA and other industries. That was why I went to the competition, to get my ideas to NASA.”

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