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OK Go and contest winners
Members of the OK Go performance-art band (at left) give the good word to one of the winning teams (shown on the screen at right) in the Art in Space contest. (OK Go via YouTube)

Three students are getting ready for a space experiment that will use gravity and magnetism to simulate the origin of planet Earth. Another trio plans to create a musical composition that’s based on blips of cosmic radiation.

We’re not talking about strictly scientific experiments here: These are the winning entries in an art contest set up by the performance-art rock band OK Go to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

The Art in Space contest follows up on OK Go’s viral “Upside Down & Inside Out” video, which splashed paint all over the interior of an airplane during a zero-gravity parabolic airplane flight. OK Go Sandbox, the nonprofit venture established by the group in league with the University of St. Thomas’ Playful Learning Lab, struck a deal with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture to let kids do something similarly creative during the weightless phase of New Shepard’s flight.

Unlike OK Go, the winners of the contest won’t be floating in zero-G. The experiments are designed to do their thing autonomously, under controlled conditions, without splattering stuff on New Shepard’s nice new upholstery.

“We were thrilled with the entries to the Art In Space contest — picking winners was so hard!” OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash said in a statement on YouTube.

“The submissions were all so imaginative, and really exemplified the type of thinking and creativity that OK Go is always striving for in our own work,” Kulash said. “The kids, especially our winners, clearly understand the truth that so many adults have lost along the way: There are no borders separating art and science — they’re the same thing. It all comes from curiosity and experimentation, and creativity is really just about exercising those skills.”

New York City students Alexandra Slabakis, Grace Clark and Annabelle Clark won the judges’ nod for a kinetic art project called “Dark Origin.” As described by Fast Company, the experiment calls for bits of “space debris” to rise up in waves and envelop a magnetized wire-art sculpture. In zero-G, the bits of debris will mix and accrete on the sculpture, mimicking Earth’s formation from planetesimals.

A trio of students from Utah — Cameron Trueblood, Blake Hullinger and Kellen Hullinger — won with their proposal for an experiment that would translate cosmic radiation readings from New Shepard’s flight into a musical composition. The notes of the song would be played on musical instruments onboard the spacecraft, and recorded on video to create a sight-and-sound experience.

“These teams will begin working with engineers, artists and educators from the Playful Learning Lab, in consultation with Blue Origin and OK Go, on flight-ready versions of their ideas,” OK Go said in an Instagram posting. To keep tabs on the kids’ progress, sign up for OK Go Sandbox’s newsletter. The on-the-fly artworks could be launched as early as 2020.

Meanwhile, another space contest for students has made a round of awards: The Base 11 Space Challenge, a rocketry competition with more than $1 million in prizes, gave out $50,000 to three Phase 1 winners on the basis of their rocket designs.

Judges from Blue Origin, SpaceX, Reaction Research Society and the Tripoli Rocketry Association reviewed more than two dozen entries from university teams, and heard from the top five finalists at a “Next Frontier Tour” event at Caltech.

Here are how the Phase 1 prizes were distributed:

  • First place ($25,000): University of Michigan.
  • Second place ($15,000): Concordia University.
  • Third place ($10,000): Portland State University.
  • Honorable mention: University of British Columbia, University of California at San Diego.

In addition, two Early Adopter Dassault Systèmes 3DExperience awards were handed out to Portland State University ($5,000) and Concordia University ($2,500).

The top prize of $1 million will be awarded to the first student-led university team to build a liquid-fueled, single-stage rocket that reaches a height of at least 100 kilometers (62 miles). Deadline for achieving that feat is Dec. 30, 2021.

“I was inspired by the incredible amount of energy and passion from our future explorers,” said retired NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, who spoke at the Caltech ceremony. “Congratulations to the Phase 1 winners in the Base 11 Space Challenge. You’ve set a high bar, but this competition is far from over, and I can’t wait to see how you creatively overcome challenges in the next year.”

University of Michigan rocketeers get the traditional oversized check from Base 11 Challenge organizers and retired astronaut Leland Melvin. (Base 11 Photo)
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