Burnt Hills students plot out life on moon, win competition; O’Rourke MS team defends title

Eighth-grader Sawyer Brannigan, left, and Gregory Tomik, both 13, members of a team of seventh- and eighth-graders at O’Rourke Middle School in Burnt Hills, lay out their "Spartemis City." 
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Eighth-grader Sawyer Brannigan, left, and Gregory Tomik, both 13, members of a team of seventh- and eighth-graders at O’Rourke Middle School in Burnt Hills, lay out their "Spartemis City." 

Near the south pole of the moon lies the Amundsen crater. Cloaked in shadows most of the time, only a pair of mountain peaks and a small portion of the frigid crater floor receive any sunlight.

That’s where a team of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake middle-school students – and budding aerospace engineers – plan to establish their lunar colony, which by 2135 will be humming with 7,000 residents in a self-sustaining society making use of the moon’s resources to protect itself against the harshness of life on the moon.

“We researched a lot of different areas on the moon, and we came across the Amundsen crater on the south pole,” eighth-grader Thomas Kotkoskie said. The location offered some protection from lunar storms and cold temperatures but was still close to vast deposits of ice. “From there we built a city based on some of the natural resources on the moon.”

The team of seventh- and eighth-graders at O’Rourke Middle School for the second straight year took home first place at the annual Future City Competition for schools across the upstate region. In the 20th year of competition, the regional event hosted 17 teams and over 150 students this year. The national competition starts this weekend, with students facing questions from a panel of engineers across the country.

“As the mecca to all travelers and researchers interested in space exploration, Spartemis is the launchpad to the universe, literally and figuratively,” the students wrote in a 1,500-word essay describing their lunar civilization. (The name is a combination of Spartan, the district’s mascot, and Artemis, the goddess of the moon.)

The school year presented unique challenges to planning for the Future City competition, which asks students to design a proposed city that addresses different engineering and design challenges. This year students met in a combination of virtual and in-person meetings, with some students at school and others at home, and had to divide up the work of developing physical models of their city.

“They had to go about solving these problems in totally different ways than in the past,” said Katie Duell, one of the team’s two teacher leaders, along with Nick Morocco.

The students said they were still able to work as a team.

“Everyone pitches in and bounces ideas off of each other, so you can help each other and you come up with this amazing project at the end,” seventh grader Sabine Adams said of her interest in the program.

The students also said the lunar theme this year presented its own special challenges. The parameters of past competitions have been more Earthbound.

“It was just really hard to figure everything out, but in the end we were able to,” eighth grader Maggie Miazga said. “In a way it brings us closer together as a team, but it definitely brings up more challenges.”

The students met with experts as they plotted out their city design. Steven Spiewak, a local astrophysicist and Burnt Hills graduate, met with the students virtually to offer some research suggestions and outline some of the challenges the students would face establishing their city on the moon. For instance: he reminded them that there is far less gravity on the moon than on Earth.

“We had to come up with a solution on how to figure that out,” eighth grader Sawyer Brannigan said. The proposed diets and exercise schedules account for the impacts of limited gravity. Part of their proposal highlights plans for people to wear weighted clothes – again because of the limited gravity.

“At the beginning, I didn’t know there was a lot of dangerous dust on the moon that could harm your lungs,” Chris Dempsey said. “I didn’t think that would be a problem.”

Members of the proposed society include scientists and engineers, construction operators who use 3-D printers to maintain the dome-based infrastructure and volunteer first responders. Each citizen is permitted one pet: “To stabilize mental health.”

The envisioned futuristic city – initiated as a primitive lunar base in 2035 – includes different hubs of activity connected by special trams and electric bikes. Every design decision is meant to address the particular challenges of living on the moon.

“Walking is encouraged to prevent muscle loss,” according to the proposal.

The city relies primarily on advanced nuclear fusion for energy, but solar panels positioned on nearby mountains provide supplemental energy and systems that produce algae to create oxygen provide yet another energy source.

The students appeared to draw at least one major lesson from their current circumstances: the lunar society’s education system is a mix of in-person instruction and virtual lessons piped in from Earth. Students start to personalize their coursework at age 12 and develop specialized skills and explore professions through internships after age 15. After working 20 years in a profession, citizens have the option to continue that work or serve as an educator with enhanced pay.

“It’s a lot easier to do things when you can do it on your own time and don’t have to be at school to participate,” eighth-grader Sawyer Brannigan said.

The society utilizes two key resources from the moon, converting regolith – essentially moon dust – for numerous applications and mining massive icefields in permanently-shaded regions of the Moon as a water source. Aeroponic farms create food for the society’s vegetable-forward diet, constantly recycling water for maximum use, but ground insects also provide a high-protein flour source for the lunar residents. Physical activity is also a must.

“Spaceball (similar to rugby) and tension exercises occur daily along with calcium supplementation to minimize bone and muscle loss,” the students wrote in their proposal.

Only a handful of the students said they would volunteer for an actual lunar colony, promising to take their hard-earned knowledge of the moon along for the journey.

“It’s such a cool and different environment to live in,” Sabine said. “There is definitely a lot of harsh setback, but with technology advancing so fast I think it would definitely be possible and livable and enjoyable to have a city on the moon.”

Maggie agreed.

“I think it would be really interesting to compare what we came up with the past few months to what the actual civilization is like,” Maggie said. “If any of us do sign up, we could help be a big part of that civilization and help make things better.”

Categories: News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

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