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Chatfield students relishing chance to work on projects for NASA

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By Deborah Swearingen

Have you ever wondered what astronauts do about trash? Or how they keep track of their belongings in a microgravity environment?

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These are legitimate problems NASA astronauts at the International Space Station face, and they are ones Chatfield Senior High School students aimed to solve through the HUNCH — high school students united with NASA to create hardware — program.

Each year, NASA publishes a list of 15 or 20 projects. Students select one from the list and brainstorm, research and develop the project throughout the course of the school year. The process includes a preliminary and critical design review, where Chatfield students met with NASA engineers and other Denver-area engineers to receive feedback. Both were held at Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum on the former Lowry Air Force Base in Denver.

At this point, NASA is in the final stages of evaluation and will soon determine which projects they would like to see developed for a final design review held in Houston at the end of April.

Solving NASA’s problems

One team of Chatfield students worked to design a device that would help astronauts locate items in the space station.

“Basically, the space station is a mess,” said Jameson Spence, 17. “There’s a lot of excess materials, tools and stuff like that up there. They lose stuff all the time. So what they want is a device that will be able to keep track of the things they want to find.”

Using radio frequency identification tags, the astronauts can type in an identification number that is attached to a particular item. The device then begins looking for the item. There are three LED lights that determine how far away the tag is from the device itself. When it’s far away, a red light appears on the device. As they move closer, it turns yellow and ultimately green.

“It’s essentially just a game of hot and cold,” said Jacob Gaiter, 17.

Spence, a self-taught programmer, was attracted to this particular project because it allowed him an opportunity to challenge himself. It also utilized the varying strengths of each of the four group members.

“We’ve seen it as a good balance between sort of manufacturing the box and also using circuitry and also coding,” Gaiter said. ‘So it’s sort of a good culmination of all of our different skills in the group.”

Another team spent the year solving a very different problem — the trash stench.

On the International Space Station, astronauts use large cotton trash bags with drawstring lids and often have to wait several months before disposing the bags.

“During that long stowage period, the trash starts to smell,” said Baden Dense, 18. “The whole ISS smells like trash. Of course, that’s pretty obviously nauseating.”

To help, his team designed a Mylar-lined trash bag. Mylar, a form of polyester resin used to make heat-resistant plastic films and sheets, cuts the gas permeability down to about zero, according to Dense.

The team also designed two separate ways to close off the bag and have decided to let NASA select which design it prefers. One option is a fold-over lid. The other is a dual chamber zipper system. The group feels the fold-over lid is more convenient to use, while the dual chamber zipper system more effectively closes off the bag.

For the critical review in February, the team designed a smaller version of the bag with the fold-over lid and left an open can of tuna inside. A month later, during the review, the team said there was no smell from the outside.

An opportunity

To teacher Joel Bertelsen, the HUNCH program presents a fantastic opportunity for students to work with talented NASA engineers. It teaches students a lot about the engineering design process and helps them learn to work well in teams. In many instances, it gives students a leg up when applying for college, internships and jobs.

All those involved see the program’s benefit, too. Many students echoed the same points as Bertelsen, saying HUNCH gave them real-world experience that likely will help in future endeavors.

“It’s also a really good way to start having a positive impact on the world at such a young age,” Dense said.

“Not really on this world,” Josh Blarr, 17, joked.

“But on the space station. We can help some astronauts! That’s cool,” Jamie McIntyre, 18, said.

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.