High School Students Launch Satellite With NASA

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Brace yourselves, history’s first high school-built satellite is set for launch! At 7:30PM ET today, TJ3Sat (pronounced TJ-cube-sat) will launch from the Wallops Flight Facility alongside 27 other satellites. Our small, 10cm x 10cm x 11cm satellite will orbit the Earth at 500km and will function as an educational tool for schools and the general public worldwide.

The satellite has two main missions:
1) To serve as an educational outreach tool through the implementation of a website that hosts live telemetry (voltages, currents, temperatures, and other system status information) to the general public, as well as providing the history, designs, and any other pertinent documents.

2) Deployment of a phonetic voice synthesizer. This module will be used to take uploaded strings of text and convert them to voice. For example, if a school would like to hear their motto spoken from space, they would visit the website and input a string of text. The string then gets transmitted up to the satellite via our ground-station and will be spoken back down to Earth for a specified amount of time.

I began this project in 2006 as part of a systems engineering course at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Now, almost a decade later, we are finally going to space. The course was designed to expose students to aspects of mechanical, electrical, and aerospace engineering and learn how these disciplines can work together to solve a complex problem.

The students started off by researching existing satellite endeavors and developing a series of potential satellite missions. These ranged from cameras and magnetorquers‎ to particle detectors. Through a series of design reviews they were whittled down to the missions we have today.

Once our mission was determined and validated, the students were divided into subsystems and worked in collaboration with industry engineers.

Over the next four years (2006-2010), students went through the process of designing, prototyping, and ultimately constructing the flight hardware with the assistance of the marvelous engineers and technicians at Orbital Science Corporation‘s facility.

The next three years (2010-2013) were used to write the software, test the components, and prove to NASA that our satellite was fit for flight. This process involved a battery of tests that are designed to ensure that a satellite can survive launch and space conditions.

The first test was a random vibration analysis. During the test, the satellite was secured to a vibration table that resembled a really big subwoofer. Then, 14,000 watts of random noise were pumped through the satellite in an attempt to detect any resonances that could cause it to structurally fail.

The next test simulated the temperature and vacuum of space and is designed to remove any volatile compounds from the materials used to construct the satellite. After the satellite completed the thermal-vac, it headed to the workbench for a software verification. Luckily, everything checked out and it went into a bag until integrated into the launch vehicle. Easy, right?

If you would like to find out more about our project and maybe begin a journey of your own, check out our website and don’t forget to look toward the eastern sky tonight for a chance to see the launch!

Adam Kemp is the author of Makerspace Workbench and a high school teacher who has been teaching courses in energy systems, systems engineering, robotics, and prototyping since 2005. He is Energy Systems Lab Director at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and the author of the “Ask an Educator” column on Adafruit Industries’ blog.

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