Colorado College’s Physics Olympiad team, consisting of Jack Schrott ’19, Sohair Abdullah ’19, and Nick Crews ’18, took first place in the eighth annual University Physics Competition. The CC team was the only team to receive a gold medal for the problem they tackled, and Colorado College was the only U.S. college to earn a gold medal in the competition.
The University Physics Competition, an international contest for undergraduate students who work in teams of up to three students, received papers from 265 teams for judging. Students in the online challenge are given a complicated physics problem to solve. They then have 48 hours to analyze an applied scenario using the principles of physics and write a formal paper describing their work.
Two problems are posted on the website as the competition begins, with teams selecting which problem they will undertake. This year’s problems both dealt with rocket science, with 193 teams selecting “Solar Sailing to Mars” and 72 teams, including CC’s, selecting “Ion Thrusters.” Schrott, Sabdullah, and Crews submitted a paper titled “Using Magnetic Fields to Direct Exhaust from Ion Thrusters” to respond the problem, which read:
Ion thrusters can be an effective means for propelling space probes through our solar system. Gridded electrostatic ion thrusters begin by ionizing their propellant, accelerating the positively charged ions using a potential difference between two or more grids, and then neutralizing the exhaust by firing a beam of electrons into it. A research team is working on a prototype Xenon ion thruster, 35 cm in diameter, with a specific impulse of 5,100 seconds and a thrust of 350 millinewtons. However, they find that ions exit the final grid at a wide range of angles. A member of the team proposes that you could generate a magnetic field that would affect the trajectories of ions out of the final grid, before the ions are neutralized, to direct their velocities into a more uniform exit direction. Evaluate this proposal. Would it be practical to generate such a magnetic field, and if so, how?
The competition took place Nov. 10-12, 2017, and the winners were announced last week. Stephanie DiCenzo, adjunct associate professor of physics, served as the CC team’s advisor. Three teams received gold for their response to the “Solar Sailing to Mars” problem. Those teams were from the University of Warsaw, the National University of Defense Technology (China), and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.