At an awards ceremony on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Intel Corp. and the Society for Science & the Public  announced the winners of the most prestigious U.S. high school science competition, Intel's Science Talent Search. A navigation system for space flight, a software program that can recognize and analyze photos, and an exploration of mathematical representation theory snagged the top three awards, worth $225,000 in scholarship money. Another $180,000 went to seven finalists whose research ran the gamut from drug resistance in breast cancer cells to how pollution contaminates city water sources. The 10 were chosen from 40 semifinalists who exhibited their work at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences last week.
Erika DeBenedictis, an 18-year-old from Albuquerque, New Mexico, won first place for a study of very low energy space travel. She was inspired, she recalls, by an article in one of her computer scientist father's "really dense science magazines" about "the interplanetary superhighway."
Slingshot maneuvers are already used to save fuel while propelling spacecraft from one planetary orbit to another or to far reaches of the solar system, but DeBenedictis wanted to take the idea to a whole new level. "I'm looking at ways of using no fuel at all," she says.
At first, DeBenedictis felt daunted by the literature, which relies on differential equations, a subject not encountered in high school classrooms. On top of that, scientists had concluded that space travel relying primarily or entirely on the gravitational pull of the planets was too slow to be practical. "They thought it would take 60 years to get to Venus," she says. But DeBenedictis, whose father taught her to program a computer at the age of 12, decided to build a simulation of the solar system to see if there was any hope for her idea.
She added realistic parameters, such as the spacecraft's size and a small amount of fuel, and then came the eureka moment. She remembers: "I was waiting for the results, and I copied and pasted them into Excel" and ran downstairs to show her mother, she says. "I found out it would only take a year and a half to get to Venus. ... That was really amazing for me."
Last week, DeBenedictis presented the fruits of 2 years of work: a flight navigation program that calculates low-energy pathways through the solar system from the positions of the planets. She thinks that a small spacecraft with only a tiny amount of fuel could use such a program "to make its way to other planets and roam the solar system for decades," riding the gravitational pull of the planets like a boat sailing winds and currents.
But DeBenedictis says she wasn't this enthusiastic about science until the seventh grade, when she wrote a computer program to find out why snowflakes have six sides. "It was so cool, because I got to answer the question for myself," she says. "Suddenly, science was more appealing than anything else."