The US space shuttle program concluded its 30+-year-long exploration of the troposphere and beyond with the successful launch of Atlantis on July 8, 2011. Today, YouTube will begin its own exploration of the troposphere and beyond with the launch of YouTube Space Lab.

Lenovo – who has a 16 year history with NASA by way of the multinational computer company’s line of ThinkPad laptops – is partnering with (presumably) the galaxy’s largest video sharing site and providing the monetary support for YouTube’s Space Lab’s online destination and real-world challenge.

In cooperation with Space Adventures (an entity with a vision to “open spaceflight and the space frontier to private citizens”), NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Lenovo and YouTube launched a “worldwide initiative that challenges 14-18 year-old students to design a scientific experiment that can be performed in space.”

Interested teens need only upload their idea to Youtube.com/SpaceLab for a chance to win a spot amongst the six regional finalists, who will all receive a trip to Washington, D.C., a Zero-G flight, and a Lenovo ThinkPad. From those half dozen regional winners, two global winners will be chosen, both of whom will have their experiments performed 250 miles above Earth at the International Space Station (ISS) and also win either a trip to Japan to watch a rocket blast off for ISS or a training session in Star City, Russia with some cosmonauts (aka the coolest contest prize ever).

If you’re not in the contest’s target demo, but still want to explore the stars, the interactive home for YouTube’s Space Lab is a good place to start. In addition to a nifty blast-off page (where, if you’re browsing on Google Chrome, you can type in your address and get a kind of Google Earth-powered, Sim City-inspired simulation of a futuristic rocket launching into the solar system from your backyard), there are a  number of space-centric playlists and at least one Space Lab original web series featuring Brad and Liam from World of the Orange for your educational enjoyment.

Think of the whole thing like an online Space Camp funded by a laptop computer made for those who do. And check it out at YouTube.com/SpaceLab.

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