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Sixth-grader from Queen of Apostles School wins NASA's Scientist for a Day competition

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Running rings around the competition, Alexia de Costa, a sixth-grader from Queen of Apostles School in Alexandria, was one of nine national winners of NASA’s Cassini Scientist for a Day. Her winning essay on Saturn earned her and her classmates the opportunity to attend a videoconference with NASA scientists May 23. Winners from California to Pennsylvania also attended.

Dex Curi, middle school science teacher, said the students were prepared for the videoconference. “The students have been saturated with knowledge of Saturn,” he said. “It is an incredible privilege and we are very lucky (to participate).”

Although the students prepared several questions, they only had time to ask two —  Is there a potential for life on Saturn, and what could make the rings of Saturn disappear?

Contestants wrote an essay about one of three photo observations taken by the Cassini spacecraft — Enceladus’ plumes, Titan’s lakes or Saturn’s hexagon and explained what they hope to learn, and which photo would provide the most interesting scientific results.

De Costa believed observing Saturn’s hexagon would yield the best scientific results. She was interested in what caused the hexagon, which is a six-sided jet stream, to form; why it only appears on the north pole; and what the conditions are that might have contributed to its formation.

Her essay reads in part: “We do not know how long Saturn's hexagon storm in the north pole will last but by studying the movement of the hexagon and any patterns of change, it is possible that we can learn more and perhaps have a better understanding about the exact influence of the winds hidden under the stormy clouds in the upper atmosphere.”

De Costa’s interest in the solar system came from books she received from her uncle. She entered the contest, which challenges students to become scientists, to study Saturn because she was fascinated with the planet and hopes to design things to explore the mysteries of Saturn when she is older.

“I am impressed by Alexia's winning essay and grateful that she and her classmates were a part of this interesting discussion,” said Kathryn A. Littlefield, principal of Queen of Apostles School.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017