European glory for Marist College students in satellite contest
Four students from the Marist College in Athlone have become European champions in the Azores islands, 900 miles off the coast of Portugal.
The memorable success came when they defeated teams from 17 other countries to win the European CanSat competition last weekend. This is a prestigious physics contest which challenges students to create a satellite in the volume and shape of a soft drink can.
Their CanSat must then be launched, carry out a scientific experiment, and achieve a safe landing.
The team consisted of 17-year-old Paul McGrath from Kiltoom; Padraig McDermott, also 17 and from Garnafailagh; 15-year old Uzman Riaz from Mardyke Street, and 17-year-old Sebastian Klosowski from Ballymahon.
They were accompanied by their physics teacher, Georgina Clear, who has been working with them on the project since the beginning of the year.
Speaking to the Westmeath Independent on Tuesday morning, Paul McGrath said he and his teammates were amazed when they were announced as the overall winners.
"We were shocked. We just sat in our seats for about five seconds, wondering is that us?" he said.
It had been a "stressful" few days for the team, which arrived on a Tuesday evening, after 18 hours of travel, and had to be up at 6am the following morning to start making adjustments to their entry.
"We had a drop test to make sure the parachute was falling at the right speed. Then we had our technical test to make sure the can was the right weight and right dimensions," he said.
"The can was a bit overweight so we had to dismantle it, take out one of the weights, and have another technical test, which we passed."
The team then had to give a pre-launch presentation before the launch of the satellite, which was broadcast on a live stream online.
While their home country was experiencing a highly unusual heatwave, conditions in the Azores were the sort we would typically associate with Ireland.
"It was very Irish weather. Raining and overcast!" said Paul.
The Marist team's project involved using a range of on-board sensors to help determine whether or not a planet could support life.
After the launch, the team had to interpret the data they collected in order to give a post-launch presentation to the judges the next day.
Paul felt the presentations were key to the overall success.
"Everyone seemed to think our last presentation was great. It comes down to teamwork, and the presentation showed the teamwork we had in knowing who was talking when, and who answered which questions. That’s what seemed to win it for us."
He said the reaction online had been extremely positive. "Loads of people have been congratulating us, and we really appreciate that.
"We got as many people as we could, around the world, to watch our live stream and I’d just like to thank all the people who watched it because that was a big part of it as well.
"We presented photos of people watching the live stream around the world, and that was the 'wow factor' in the presentation."
The Marist CanSat team had booked their place at the European event by beating six other teams at the Irish finals in Laois in April.
The competition is an initiative of the European Space Agency, which sponsored accommodation, meals and local transport for the teams in the Azores.
Story by Adrian Cusack