STEM students prove they are masters of the universe

Vanessa Lahey meets a team of budding astronauts from Newcastle that has won an international space race.

06 October 2021
A concept drawing of a spacecraft
Image: The spacecraft, Horchhog, designed by the Toronto High School team.

A student team from Toronto High School has taken a giant leap on the international stage, winning a prestigious space race competition.

Twenty-five schools from three nations - Australia, Egypt and the United States – were involved in the virtual race to the fictional planet Vulcan.

The six-day challenge required contestants to design a concept spacecraft and plot its interstellar navigation through outer space.

Year 9 students Chris Olde, Sebastian Hornsby and William Roberts along with Finn Pirret in Year 8 also had to create a simulated base station and overcome challenges such as optimising fuel usage on transfer orbits between planets.

The students used the virtual reality software SpaceCRAFT, a program that models space and planetary environments using planetary and physics data from NASA, during the competition.

Race manager, former NASA astronaut Professor Gregory Chamitoff, said the results from Australia’s Hunter region in its first year of the competition were truly outstanding.

“The dedication and skill level of the students can’t be overestimated, it bodes well for the future international space community,” Dr Chamitoff said.

The students were mentored through the competition by professional astronauts, engineers and scientists, all of whom have been directly involved in actual space missions.

Toronto High School Principal Mark McConville said the competition was part of his school’s High Potential and Gifted Education Accelerated Class called LEAP – Learning Enrichment and Accelerated Program (LEAP).

“The Regional Development Australia - Hunter Manufacturing Education partnership program facilitated the SpaceCRAFT Exploration Challenge,” Mr McConville said.

“It’s a partnership focused on skills and workforce development and links industry with schools in order to make the curriculum more interesting and workplace-relevant.

“The LEAP team engaged deeply with the program and have an ongoing interest in this area. It’s sparked possible career pathways for these students.”

Team member Sebastian Hornsby, who also received the perseverance award in the competition, is one of those inspired by a future space-related career.

“I enjoyed listening to the talks from previous astronauts, as well as the Australian robotics expert Ben Morel,” Sebastian told local media.

“It has helped me realise why this is an excellent avenue for me to pursue later in life.”

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