On a mission: Aerospace engineering's Conte selected for Caltech Space Challenge

Penn State aerospace engineering graduate student Davide Conte with one of Leonardo Da Vinci's ideas for a flying machine, at the National Museum of Science and Technology, Milano, Italy. Conte is headed to the 2015 Caltech Space Challenge. Credit: Rossana MainardiAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two years ago, Penn State student Davide Conte helped design a human-led mission to Mars for a project in his senior spacecraft design course. The aerospace engineering graduate student will soon have a chance to be part of a similar initiative at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Conte is one of 32 students who have been invited to travel to California March 22-27 to participate in the 2015 Caltech Space Challenge.

This is the first year Penn State will be represented at the challenge, which was also held in 2013 and 2011.

A five-day space mission design competition, the challenge is open to undergraduate and graduate students worldwide. Students apply for the program in the fall, including submitting an essay explaining why they are interested in the challenge and a letter of recommendation from a supervisor, adviser or faculty member.

Students selected for the challenge are split into two teams and assigned a mission design problem. This year’s task is to design a mission to land humans on an asteroid brought back to lunar orbit, extract the asteroid’s resources and demonstrate their use.

Most appealing about this year’s challenge, said Conte, is that it’s an intermediate step to the ultimate goal of exploring Mars. “A few years ago, President Obama made a commitment to expand space exploration. It will be interesting to see which of the asteroid’s resources we can use to go farther into space, so we don’t have to depend on Earth’s resources all the time.”

Among the difficulties of addressing the challenge, he predicted, is finding an optimal trajectory. “We want to strike a good balance between the amount of time the astronauts spend traveling in space and how much time they spend mining the asteroid’s resources.”

He added that it will be critical to create a formula that gets the astronauts back to Earth safely.

Conte, who is originally from Genova, Italy, is a member of Team Explorer. “I’ve already virtually met some of my teammates. Many are from international universities and I even met another student who is also from Italy.”

As the students work on the challenge, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Caltech faculty members will mentor the two teams to help them develop their mission plans. Students will also attend guest lectures and workshops that feature top scientists and engineers from NASA-JPL, Caltech and other institutions. 

The challenge will conclude with final presentations at Caltech, the submission of a final report, constructive feedback for both teams and the announcement of the winning team.

Students who take part in the challenge benefit by working in a multidisciplinary team, learning about project management and systems engineering and interacting with expert scientists and engineers in industry.

David Spencer, professor of aerospace engineering at Penn State and Conte’s adviser, said, “When I saw a paper presented on this program at a conference last year, I immediately thought of encouraging Davide to apply. I'm very proud that he was selected. Not only will the experience benefit him, but the knowledge that he brings back to his role as a teaching assistant in our senior spacecraft design courses will benefit our students as well.”

Conte, who plans to work on human space exploration either in a research capacity or in industry, said he looks forward to networking with others who are passionate about the field. “It sounds like a great opportunity to think about my future and explore potential career options.”

“Besides," he added, “I’ve never been to the West Coast.”

For more information about this year’s challenge, visit

Last Updated March 20, 2015