Grammar boys' hot air gets Nasa's attention

By Morgan Tait

Auckland Grammar students Patrick Zeng, 17 (left), and Derek Chan, 16, hope their idea for warming air in zero-gravity will be chosen by Nasa for a space station trial. Photo / Richard Robinson
Auckland Grammar students Patrick Zeng, 17 (left), and Derek Chan, 16, hope their idea for warming air in zero-gravity will be chosen by Nasa for a space station trial. Photo / Richard Robinson

Two Auckland schoolboys could be responsible for the future of astronaut luxury - air-conditioned spaceships - and will visit Nasa headquarters in Washington DC next month to see if their idea will be tested in space.

Auckland Grammar School Year 12 students Derek Chan, 16, and Patrick Zeng, 17, spent their summer holidays putting together an impressive entry for the YouTube Space Lab global science competition.

The duo were named Asia Pacific regional winners this week, beating thousands of entrants in a public vote and wowing a judging panel including Professor Stephen Hawking.

Derek said the experiment looked at heat transfer in microgravity - how fluids were heated and cooled in space where there was no gravity to move heat around.

"On earth, hot water would rise from the bottom of a cup to the top, making it all hot, but in space there is no gravity to make it move," he said.

Their experiment used a heater and two thermal resistors to heat, and keep hot, a container of air.

Though the idea was not as crazy or complex as others, it was an area yet to be fully explored by Nasa scientists, said Patrick.

"It could lead to air conditioning and insulation so it provides a better environment and more comfortable environment for future expeditions," he said.

Other regional winners, from Spain, India, Egypt and the United States, proposed to observe the hunting habits of spiders, magnetic fluids and bacteria in zero gravity, and examine if the galaxy was formed the same way as snowflakes.

Derek and Patrick will travel to Nasa headquarters for an awards dinner on March 22 to see if their experiment will be chosen as overall winner, and conducted and streamed live on YouTube from the International Space Station.

The trip will involve a number of activities, including a much anticipated zero-gravity flight.

YouTube Asia Pacific communication manager David Marx said the Auckland teenagers' experiment was was clever without being "gimmicky".

"It's really honest in the sense that you can tell these guys are really into science and they thought of a really clever experiment and just did it.

"This was really kind of earnest - a lot of entries were quite crazy and gimmicky, but you can tell they thought of something they really wanted to know about."

Despite the accolade, Patrick never thought the experiment would receive such recognition, and encouraged other Kiwis to give competitions a shot.

"If we can get this far, we know a lot of people who have more understanding of science and physics and they could do better than this and represent New Zealand internationally," he said.

Auckland Grammar School principal John Morris said he was impressed by the boys' initiative.

"These two obviously invested a lot of time into it and gave it their very best shot," he said.

"They're both able boys so it's no surprise they have done quite well."

View Patrick and Derek's entry at http://tiny.cc/dc5q6

- NZ Herald

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