Worcester Academy Students Win NASA TechRise Challenge

Worcester Telegram article by Maggie Buckley 
Photo by Allan Jung, Telegram & Gazette
WORCESTER — Infinity and beyond just got a whole lot closer.
On Jan. 21, Worcester Academy students Katie Adiletta, Ritvik Chand, Junii Choi and Donovan Sappet won the NASA TechRise Student Challenge, a competition for aspiring scientists across the country. 
The result?
A chance to launch their project into space.
Their project, “Exploring the Effectiveness of Photo-Analysis Threat Identification in Microgravity,” was one of 57 proposals that will be developed and sent 62 miles above the Earth’s surface inside a suborbital rocket.
The project was entirely student-driven.
“My role was to help facilitate their applications,” Chris Aguiar, science department chair at Worcester Academy, said. 
This is the first time the school has participated in the NASA TechRise Challenge, he said.
“This project shows that they’ve taken that extra step; it was totally on their own,” he said.
Sappet, a sophomore, spearheaded the project and brought it to the attention of his peers in 2021.
“I periodically check NASA’s website to see any competitions they sponsor, and when I saw this one, I knew we had to put together a team."
“Who doesn’t want the opportunity to launch something into space?” he asked.
Not only are the students excited to get their project into orbit, but they are determined to contribute useful knowledge to aerospace.
“As countries continue to expand their space programs, the significant threats that space debris poses needs to be addressed,” Sappet said.
It is the hope of the team that its project will allow them to see the threat of space debris in different conditions including during the three minutes of microgravity it will experience while on the UP Aerospace.
“This is a great opportunity to think about things outside of school and school subjects and think about the possibilities of helping the greater good,” Adiletta, a junior on the team, said.
The four young scientists are currently in the planning stages, troubleshooting issues alongside teachers like Russell Ruthen such as how to deal with such a high force of gravity.
“Fighter pilots can withstand about 10g (force),” Ruthen said. “This will be about 18 times that force.”
Students will also have to accommodate for the temperature, as their project will not be held in a controlled environment and it could get as warm as 176 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, the students were unfazed by such issues.
“It’s really exciting that we’re able to take our initial concept and work through all the challenges and issues to make an end product that will eventually be launched into space,” Sappet said.
Added Adiletta: “It's such an exciting experience. It's fun. It's not like a homework assignment.”
The team members are hopeful to have ordered the necessary materials with the $1,500 given to them as winners of the NASA TechRise Challenge before they leave for March break so they can begin building as soon as possible.
They are also eager to begin working under the tutelage of NASA scientists and engineers, an added perk of winning the competition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team is made up of students passionate about the project in which they are partaking.
However, Aguiar shared it is the limitless potential these students exhibit while exploring different sciences.
“They’re all very dedicated and diligent science students. What I love about them is that their love of science transcends the discipline,” he said.
The students, though, are grateful for an opportunity to apply their knowledge in a more useful way.
“Through this project, we are able to take our classroom and our personal learnings and apply them to solve a real-world issue,” Sappet said. “It’s a good opportunity to flex our academic muscle.”