Two UA Undergrads Win NASA Fellowships for Visionary Space Projects

May 15, 2006
Rigel Woida (left) will work on a visionary space project that someday might "terraform" a piece of Mars. Woida is pictured with a model of the Phoenix Mission Surface Stereo Imager. Daniella Della-Giustina (right) will develop an idea for shielding human space travelers from cosmic radiation.
Rigel Woida (left) will work on a visionary space project that someday might "terraform" a piece of Mars. Woida is pictured with a model of the Phoenix Mission Surface Stereo Imager. Daniella Della-Giustina (right) will develop an idea for shielding human space travelers from cosmic radiation.

NASA has awarded two University of Arizona undergraduate students fellowships to investigate revolutionary ideas for space exploration. Only five such fellowships were awarded nationwide.

Daniella Della-Giustina has been awarded a $9,000 NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Student Fellows Prize to study the use of near-Earth asteroids as radiation shielding during a human journey to Mars.

Della-Giustina is an engineering physics major who just completed her junior year and a 2005-2006 UA NASA Space Grant internship with Dante Lauretta of UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Her prize-winning project is titled "The Martian Bus Schedule: An Innovative Technique for Protecting Humans on a Journey to Mars."Lauretta will supervise Della-Giustina on the project.

Rigel Woida has been awarded a $9,000 NIAC Student Fellows Prize to study the use of large aperture, lightweight orbital mirrors for "terraforming" an area of the martian surface so humans could affordably colonize the Red Planet.

Woida is an optical sciences and engineering senior who is a staff technician at UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. His prize-winning project is titled "The Road to Mars." Optical sciences Professor Eustace Dereniak and Assistant Research Professor Robert M. Stone will supervise Woida on the project.

"The biggest obstacle facing manned space exploration is the threat of biologically hazardous cosmic radiation," Della-Giustina said. "If we don't develop an effective solution to this issue, the threat of cosmic radiation will prevent a manned mission to Mars."

During astronauts' six-to-ten-month journey to Mars, they will be exposed to dangerous levels of space radiation that potentially causes cancer and other serious medical problems. Currently proposed shielding systems that would absorb or deflect cosmic radiation are prohibitively expensive or impractical, Della-Giustina said.

She will investigate the possibility of spacecraft "hitching" a ride on asteroids with orbits that cross both Earth's and Mars' orbits. There is a large population of such asteroids with regolith for shielding spacecraft and mass from which Martian astronauts could mine natural resources during their journey, Della-Giustina said.

Della-Giustina said she will use her fellowship funds to make direct observations of near-Earth asteroids, to travel to Denver to work with Lockheed Martin researchers who will collaborate with her on the project, and to conduct cosmochemistry experiments at UA.

"The goal of the 'Road to Mars' project is to bring a small area of Mars' surface to Earth ambient temperature" so humans could explore and, eventually, colonize Mars, Woida said.

His idea is to establish a segmented global reflector in orbit around Mars, a 1.5-kilometer diameter array made up of 150 segmented, 150-meter-diameter mylar balloons that would collect sunlight and shine it down over a one-square kilometer area of Mars' surface.

"I adjusted the aperture so the reflector would heat a square-kilometer of Mars' surface to roughly Tucson daytime illumination and temperatures," Woida said. "This would have immediate benefits for the astronauts. It would increase the light level, solar panel energy collection and bring the temperature of that part of the planet up to Earth's. Astronauts wouldn't have to work in freezing temperatures or spend energy thawing frozen water - water they need for manufacturing fuel to return to Earth, as well as water needed for consumption. "

Eventually, the orbital reflector could permit humans to create a stable base camp "terraformed" over a small part of the surface for colonization and future exploration, Woida said. "Eventually, using techniques like these, humans might cultivate plants on Mars."

Woida's father, Patrick Woida, is a Lunar and Planetary Lab test engineer on the 2007-2008 Mars Scout Phoenix Mission that will run science operations at UA with Peter Smith as principal investigator.

The NIAC Student Fellows Prize, sponsored by Universities Space Research Association and managed by NIAC, was initiated in 2005 to attract visionary students and facilitate their work. No two students from a single university have been awarded NIAC fellowships until this year.

NIAC investigates revolutionary ideas that could greatly advance NASA's missions in the future. The proposals push the limits of known science and technology, and thus are not expected to be realized for at least a decade or more.

"This year's crop of exciting proposals and students continues our latest effort at identifying the best new ideas for advanced concepts in aerospace endeavors," said NIAC Associate Director Diana Jennings, who manages the Student Fellows Program. "We look forward to exciting work by these creative and accomplished students."

Della-Giustina, Woida and the three other winners will present their results at NIAC's annual meeting that will be held in Tucson next October. They also will present results at the NIAC's Fellows meeting in Atlanta in March 2007. The students results' will be publicized at NIAC's Website, http://www.niac.usra.edu.

Other 2006-2007 NIAC student winners are from the University of Alabama, Huntsville; the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Cornell University.