Graduate student leads team to victory in aerospace engineering design contest


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State graduate student Davide Conte recently led a team of international graduate students to a sweep at the 2016 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Forum in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Conte, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, assembled an interdisciplinary team, called the Dream Team, of 15 students from 11 universities, representing eight countries. Competing against 11 other finalists from an original field of more than 65 teams, the Dream Team won First Place Overall, Best in Theme and the Pioneering Exceptional Achievement Concept Honor Award, which recognizes the most innovative and meaningful idea presented at the forum.

“For the magnitude of this competition, I knew I needed an experienced, diversified and highly competitive team,” said Conte. “I contacted friends all over the world who are the best student experts I know in the field of space mission design, including experts in specific subsystems such as life support, hybrid propulsion and trajectory optimization. Within a week, I had formed the team, and for 10 months we worked very hard on our mission design, on top of our daily student lives.”

RASC-AL is a university-level, full mission architecture engineering design competition. It requires students studying fields with applications to human space exploration to develop mission architectures that employ innovation in crafting NASA exploration approaches and strategies around one of four available competition themes.

The competition allows students to incorporate their coursework into real aerospace design concepts, with the objective of NASA sustaining a permanent, exciting space exploration program that can help extend humanity’s reach into space.

The team chose the Crewed Mars Moons Mission as its theme, which involves conducting both broad and deep space exploration and moon surface excursions within a 20-year timespan, using a total NASA budget of $16 billion a year.

“We chose the Crewed Mars Moons Mission because it was the most ambitious of all themes and aims at expanding the presence of humanity in our solar system way beyond low-earth orbit,” said Conte. “Going to the moons of Mars requires a lot of mass and time which translates into money and risk; therefore, we created a sustainable and evolvable mission design that makes use of a hybrid propulsion concept combined with a series of innovative technologies.”

The students' mission, named Innovative Mars Global International Exploration Mission (IMaGInE), would deliver a crew of four astronauts to the surface of Deimos, Mars’ smaller moon, and conduct a robotic exploration mission of Phobos, Mars’ larger moon. The mission would last approximately 343 days during the years 2031 and 2032.

The IMaGInE Mission crew’s surface excursions would be driven by science, technology demonstrations, in-situ resource utilization and possible future human exploration site reconnaissance on Mars. The mission would also allow the reuse of the mothership the team designed for successive human and robotic missions to the surface of Mars and farther destinations in the solar system.

The team, advised by David Spencer, professor of aerospace engineering at Penn State, also included Rhiannon Vieceli, who was a Penn State graduate student in geosciences at the time.

“I am very impressed with the ability of these students to pull together a team, from Pasadena to Poland, ranging over nine time zones,” said Spencer. “They demonstrated how students can work in teams all over the world, just like what is done in the real world. Davide was the catalyst that assembled this 'dream team,' and he demonstrated great organizational and leadership skills that will serve him through his career. Each of these students brought their strengths to this team, and their resulting work showed a seamless integration of inputs from this large team."

For winning the competition, the IMaGInE team will present its winning concept at the 2016 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space and Astronautics Forum and Exposition in Long Beach, California, in mid-September.

It should be noted that these students are also student-athletes: They won the RASC-AL volleyball tournament and beat the NASA volleyball team.


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The Penn State Department of Aerospace Engineering, established in 1961 and the only aerospace engineering department in Pennsylvania, is consistently recognized as one of the top aerospace engineering departments in the nation, and is also an international leader in aerospace education, research, and engagement. Our undergraduate program is ranked 15th and our graduate programs are ranked 15th nationally by U.S. News & World Report, while one in 25 holders of a B.S. degree in aerospace engineering in the U.S. earned it from Penn State. Our students are consistently among the most highly recruited by industry, government, and graduate schools nationwide.

The department is built upon the fundamentals of academic integrity, innovation in research, and commitment to the advancement of industry. Through an innovative curriculum and world-class instruction that reflects current industry practice and embraces future trends, Penn State Aerospace Engineering graduates emerge as broadly educated, technically sound aerospace engineers who will become future leaders in a critical industry

Department of Aerospace Engineering

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The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802

Phone: 814-865-2569