Every now and again, a young individual pops up whose talent and intelligence are so brilliant that it seems almost unbelievable. Listening to Erika DeBenedictis describe her award-winning research is cause for this type of disbelief. Chosen from over 300 semi-finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search for her study of the Interplanetary Superhighway, she is well on her way to becoming a key player in the scientific community. Now in her first year at the California Institute of Technology, we could easily say that, with Erika, the sky’s the limit. But it’s not. We foresee very few limits in her future, and the Big-Blue-Beyond is not one of them.
First of all, congratulations on winning the Intel Science Talent Search. Not only is the award prestigious, you were given $100,000 for your research! What has the entire experience been like?
Winning STS was an amazing fairy-tale dream-come true moment for me. I’d been interested in science research competitions throughout high school and STS was The Big contest; the winners did fascinating, influential research and I’d always looked up to them.
The contest begins with submitting essays, references, and a research report. In January, 300 semi-finalists are announced, and then a couple weeks later the 40 finalists are selected from the semi-finalists. I had heard from friends who did STS in previous years that they call the finalists a couple days before the press release, and I kept getting more and more worried as the press release date approached and I still hadn’t heard anything. I also noticed a series of unusual events, like a voicemail on the answering machine from a friend who works at Intel, and my mom insisting I get my haircut on Thursday and answering questions evasively… it turned out that the people at the local Intel plant decided to throw me a surprise party for being a finalist, complete with a big fake check and blue and silver balloons, right at the moment of the press release. As you can imagine, I was quite relieved to be selected as a finalist after all that suspense!
The 40 finalists go to Washington, DC, for more judging of their research as well as interview sessions where panels of scientists ask you questions ranging from “solve this differential equation,” to, “what would extraterrestrials look like on Mars?” It was such a fun week! A few weeks after I won, I was contacted by a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (they build and operate Mars rovers), who was head of the division that does research on which I based my project. I was invited to JPL and given the grand tour and the opportunity to present my research to a room full of scientists, about half of whom I’d cited. Slightly intimidating, but really awesome!
Can you explain your research for our readers?
If you look at the position of asteroids in the solar system and plot a histogram of the number of asteroids at some radius from the Sun you’ll notice that there are giant peaks in asteroid distribution. Why is that? Why are the asteroids where they are and not evenly distributed throughout the solar system, or peaked in different positions than they are today?
Answers to these questions may be given by looking at the effects of the Interplanetary Superhighway (IPS), which is a theory in space science describing how objects can move throughout planets and moons using essentially zero thrust – just like an unpropelled asteroid.
Most of us think about the solar system as static: we often think that the planets go around on their orbits mechanically. However, this isn’t the case. The solar system is much messier than it seems on the surface; there are moons and asteroids and comets and space dust, and each object’s gravity affects all the other objects’ movement. It’s chaotic. The IPS describes how there are certain types of maneuvers that exploit the chaos of the solar system which an unpropelled object can use to significantly change its orbit.
I’m researching methods of identifying these sensitive trajectories and allowing a spacecraft to fly them. I developed a prototype software system that would allow a spacecraft with a small ion drive to calculate and fly the “low-energy” orbits of the IPS. Imagine some type of small satellite that could roam the solar system for decades without needing to be re-fueled. Or imagine asteroid mining that would involve bringing an entire asteroid, a hunk of ore, back to Earth by gradually changing its orbit using the IPS. The potential applications are immense.
Where did this idea develop, and when did you start working on it?
My dad subscribes to a science magazine called Engineering and Science. I think I was in fifth grade when I was flipping through it one day and a rather colorful picture with planets caught my eye, accompanied by the title, “The Interplanetary Superhighway.” Years later, when I was thinking of potential research topics, I remembered that article and started reading through the background research. While the term “IPS” is relatively new, the concept has gone back as far as Poincare, and the research I did was heavily reliant on the work of many previous researchers.
What’s next in your research? What are the major obstacles or problems left to solve?
While we currently know how to plan orbits that reach distant locations in the solar system with little fuel, these paths often take prohibitively long amounts of time. One of the focuses of my research was on developing techniques to use small amounts of propulsion to shorten the time needed to reach another planet to make these paths more practical. The effort to make paths that are fuel-efficient and time-efficient is ongoing.
One of the end goals of research is to put ideas into practice. As such, a big obstacle is the expense and expertise required to actually launch a spacecraft. I think that the private space industry will take off in the near future, giving scientists many more opportunities to put ideas like the IPS to the test.
Tell me where your science background comes from. When did you realize this is something you were good at, and how did you pursue it academically and personally?
In sixth grade I happened to pick up a book called Hyperspace, by Michio Kaku. It’s a book for the amateur scientist describing our current understanding of theoretical physics – black holes, particle colliders, extra dimensions – the whole shebang. I was fascinated. I read a few more of Kaku’s books, and then I read Feynman’s Lectures on Computation, and I just got more and more curious. I started doing research projects on things, starting with how snowflakes form, a surprisingly complex process, and I went on from there.
You’re entering the world of science (academically and professionally) at a very exciting time, technology-wise. Are there new technologies or projects that you foresee playing a large part in your own research or that you’re excited to see develop?
This is an exciting time for technology! Just in the few years I’ve been programming, I’ve gone from a single-core computer to a multi-core computer and then to a GPU. What’s interesting is that all of these forms of hardware require significantly different programming techniques to use efficiently: we are no longer able to exploit the speedup of single core manufacturing. Instead, we are needing to branch out into new technologies. The computer industry is facing a big change in terms of how we build hardware and program software, and the decisions we make in this field will have a big effect on the future.
What are your interests apart from science? What do you do on the weekends?
I love singing in choir and reading books. When I visited France two summers ago I was introduced to espresso and have since become quite the coffee snob, which is a fun hobby. I’ve also recently started taking tango lessons, which, by the way, works better than trying to learn from YouTube videos.
What’s something that doesn’t make sense to you, that you can’t seem to grasp – scientifically or otherwise?
There’s this thing that really bugs me about faucets. People say it’s a pet peeve, but it’s totally not! It’s a serious, widespread problem! There are a surprising number of faucets which are very poorly designed. They don’t protrude from the sink enough, and so you get this stream of water like an inch away from the side of the sink! It’s TERRIBLE! There’s no way to wash your hands, which is the entire point of the faucet to start with! I see these faucets sometimes and am SO puzzled by how anyone would possibly think to design them that way.
If one of our readers were to read about your research and say, “I want to help her out!” what could they do to contribute to your success?
As I’ve entered college, I’ve been so impressed by how supportive people are of me and my ideas and my education. Society as a whole is doing a great job of encouraging me in my work, and it’s because people recognize that science is exciting and cool. Keep up that enthusiasm!