We are looking for astronauts to fly to an asteroid

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Fly to a four-kilometre asteroid, collect samples from it and, then, prevent it from colliding with the Earth – a disaster predicted for 2045 – using the most powerful laser in the world; this is the task of the rocket crew to be launched into space in summer in order to save mankind. At least this is the preliminary scenario of the third Space Expedition, a competition devised to bring science closer to children at the age of 10–15 in an untraditional way.

This year the Expedition scenario is based on the fact that the ELI Beamlines project, situated close to Prague – in Dolní Břežany – will officially be opened in the autumn, featuring the most powerful laser in the world. Thus, the Vesmír (Universe) magazine, in cooperation with the Institute of Physics of the Academy of Sciences, is going to use this opportunity as part of the Expedition Deep Space to introduce the centre‘s unique laser technologies to children; to let them virtually touch something that their parents, in the long term, will only be able to experience through reading.

As fabricated as the underlying frame of this year‘s Expedition may seem, it is based on real scientific knowledge. As explained by astrophysicist Jiří Grygar, the juror of the competition, the use of a powerful laser to avert such a cosmic disaster is likely provided that we bring such a laser into space and aim at the asteroid long enough and at the right angle. “In such a case, the laser‘s energy would evaporate the asteroid‘s rocky surface layers, which, as such, would create such a reactive thrust which – in the long run – would change the path of the asteroid on its way through the Solar system.” In principle, the same might apply to the possibility to direct the path of space debris on the Earth‘s orbit. However, with a big asteroid, this would be a long haul. This year‘s Expedition Space will, therefore, play out a scenario with the crew flying to an imaginary asteroid expected to cross the Earth‘s orbit in 30 years – in 2045.

The children will meet real scientists from the Academy of Sciences who will prepare them for all they need on their space trip. “Our specialists will train the crew to operate our powerful lasers,” says Roman Hvězda, the head of the ELI Beamlines project from the Institute of Physics, attracting any prospective astronauts. During holidays, some of his colleagues will become instructors to show the children what they had no chance of seeing before. “For example, in experimental laboratories of the HiLASE centre, they will be able to use a laser to draw on a metal surface in colour as if this was a crayon,” adds Tomáš Mocek, the head of the HiLASE project.

The Space Expedition starts on April 8th. The first round for anybody interested to take part in a space flight simulation (and meets the age criteria of 10–15 years at the time of the event) will end on May 15th. The best applicants will proceed to the second round which will end on June 30th. Then, children‘s works will be evaluated by an expert jury consisting of – apart from Jiří Grygar, British inorganic chemist Michael Londesborough and a Czech army pilot Oldřich Pelčák known for being a back-up astronaut for Vladimír Remek.

The semi-finals of the Space Expedition will take place in late August, at the end of which five astronauts, who will take part in the space flight simulation, will be selected by the jury. At the end of the Space Expedition, a special flight in an aircraft flying on a parabolic path is prepared for the winner to repeatedly experience weightlessness as experienced in the real world by astronauts who fly into real space.


A flight on a real aircraft with zero gravity was enjoyed very much by the participants of the Space Expedition in 2014. Photo: Khalil Baalbaki

The winning crew of the 2nd volume of the last year‘s event comprised David Pluhař (Grammar School in Nový Bydžov), Eliška Rohlíková (Church Grammar School in Plzeň), Maxim Simon (Voděradská Grammer School, Praha), Karolína Večerková (Grammar School – Nature School, Praha) and Jakub Zdražil (Grammar School in Kroměříž). Their goal was to reach the Čurjumov-Gerasimenko comet, following the path of the Rosetta probe sent by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2004. While on the way, the children astronauts examined the minor planet No. 153616, discovered in 2001 by astronomers Petr Pravec and Petr Kušnirák from the Astronomic Institute of the CAS in Ondřejov. The discoverers, following a consultation with the Expedition organiser‘s, enabled the little astronauts to pick a name for the planet. Based on the letters in their first names (David, Karolína, Eliška, Maxim, Kuba), the crew formed a name Dinamia which, together with justification, is now heading to the international commission for the naming of objects in the Solar system. If the name is approved, the minor planet will bear this name forever.

The naming of objects associated with science has been a tradition of the Space Expedition. In 2014, the finalist of the 1st edition of the Space project picked a name for one detector station of the Pierre Augere International Observatory in Argentina. The huge cask filled with water has borne the name “Ználek” ever since. This year‘s finalists of the Space Expedition will pick a name for a part of the infrastructure of the most powerful laser of the world.

The organisers of the Space Expedition are the Vesmír magazine, the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, the ELI Beamlines and HiLASE. The main partner of the project is Metrostav construction company. “We have decided to support the Space Expedition because we find this way of supporting hugely talented kids on their way to science very meaningful,” says Martin Plch, the director of Metrostav, division 3. “We know that the first year of the Expedition has directed some of the finalists to study fields related to physics and technology. Metrostav has been a long-term supporter of university and secondary school students of technical disciplines, now we turn our attention to kids who are even younger and may become significant personalities in science and in the construction industry."

Other partners of the project are VCES and the International Day of Light, media partners are TECHNET.cz and the ABC magazine.

Additional information about the Space Expedition may be found at expedice.vesmir.cz or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/expedicevesmir. Photos and video may be found at under http://1url.cz/B0Gp.