Trupti Mahendrakar, a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering, participated in the exclusive 2022 Caltech Space Challenge in California, one of just 32 students from around the world selected for the 5-day event held in late March.
There were a record 912 applicants from 75 countries for the 2022 Challenge, and those who were chosen after a series of interviews hailed from France, India, Japan, the UK, Netherlands, Argentina, Mexico, Romania, Canada, Italy, Australia, Singapore and the U.S. Mahendrakar represented India, as well as Florida Tech.
In the Challenge, which was started in 2011 by two California Institute of Technology (Caltech) grad students, two teams of 16 space exploration enthusiasts were given five days to design a mission to collect three different samples from Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the only planetary body in our solar system besides Earth where there is clear evidence of surface liquid. The teams also needed to safely contain the samples for the ascent off Titan and then bring them back to Earth.
As the teams designed and modified their concepts throughout the week, mentors from the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and Caltech provided essential support and guidance.
Mahendrakar was on Team Explorer, which after an intense four days of work on the mission from dawn until midnight, lost to Team Voyager by a narrow margin. “This is one of those situations where it’s a bummer you have to choose a winner,” said George Whitesides, the lead juror and current chairman of the Space Advisory Board for Virgin Galactic. “Both teams worked their guts out for a week to produce something that many organizations would take months, if not years, to produce.”
Ultimately, the element of feasibility pushed team Voyager’s proposal over the edge. “The teams each figured out relatively elegant solutions to something that would instantly be the hardest thing that NASA has ever done robotically,” Whitesides said. “The ultimate reason that Voyager won was because we thought their proposal was more likely to be an implementable mission, something that a NASA-type organization might be able to afford.”
Team Explorer’s project was called the Oracle. Mahendrakar said the experience, win or lose, was more than worthwhile.
“We learned a lot and developed and identified an immense amount of technologies to enable this mission. Ultimately, we contributed significant unexplored work to Caltech and JPL,” she said. “It is incredible what 16 engineers and scientists so passionate about space exploration can accomplish when locked in a room to solve a mission in 5 days. I will always cherish meeting these people from around the world and the work that we put together. Working in such fast-paced dynamics is something that you don’t see at school or work.”