Four secondary school students from Ennis, Co Clare, have boldly gone where no Irish pupils have gone before and won an international Nasa competition for designing a major space settlement.
The four 17-year-old students from St Flannan’s College beat 4,000 students from around the world.
Students Seán Donnelly, Eoghan Keane, Jason Herbert and Kieran Maher received their award at a recent ceremony for their design of a self-sustaining settlement capable in space of supporting a community of at least 10,000 people.
The students were assisted by physics teacher John Conneely, along with biology teacher Michael Horgan and chemistry teacher Gráinne O'Brien.
“We were all thrilled with the news,” said Mr Conneely. “It’s a huge confidence booster for them. This is an international competition judged by top Nasa scientists, so to get their approval means an awful lot.
“It really was a team effort. The students developed the ideas themselves, and we gave some overall direction; they also got expert advice from the Colham Centre for Nuclear Fusion based in the UK.”
The competition required that the settlement be located outside the Earth’s atmosphere, which could mean at any point between low Earth orbit and beyond the the orbit of Pluto. Students were also required to show how it would be capable of producing artificial gravity, food, an atmosphere and electricity. They also had to detail what materials were required, and how the settlement would be assembled and financed.
The St Flannan’s team adopted the radical approach of launching payloads into space without the need for chemical rockets.
Instead they based their launch system on an electromagnetic propulsion tube, similar in principle to that of magnetically levitating trains.
They said the settlement should be in the form of a rotating modified torus, with a central hub and powered by a nuclear fusion reactor.
The team said it was inspired by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to position their settlement in the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, which is thought to contain vast amounts of frozen water.
The students received their award at the International Space Development Convention in Puerto Rico earlier this month.