Fairfax County students build first satellite sent to space

November 19, 2013

A blaze of flame erupted from NASA’s Wallops Island facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday as a satellite developed by students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology launched into space aboard a Minotaur I rocket.

The rocket launch — visible across the Eastern Seaboard in the clear night sky — culminated seven years of work for more than 50 students from TJ, as the Fairfax County magnet school is known. The satellite, TJCubeSat, was the first designed and built by high school students to be sent into space. The Minotaur I’s payload included 29 satellites, which the company overseeing the launch said is the most ever carried into orbit by a single rocket.

“We were waiting for this day for so long,” said Bobby Huddleston, a 2013 TJ graduate who was among a group of alumni and students who watched the launch. “There was a sense of completion, that we had finished this project, and everyone high-fived and hugged.”

The satellite, which completes an orbit around the Earth about every 100 minutes, is designed to receive messages the students send into space; it then rebroadcasts those messages using radio waves that can be heard around the globe via ham radio. The satellite’s voice synthesizer interprets lines of text phonetically, meaning that, with slight tweaks in word structure, the messages can be “spoken” in any language.

Students at TJ were still attempting to contact the satellite late last week. (In coming days, listeners should be able to tune into the messages at 437.32 MHz +/- 0.013, according to the team, and the satellite can be tracked online via a link that can be found at www.tjhsst.edu/students/
activities/tj3sat
.)

In a class of nanosatellites known for their distinctive cube shape, the TJCubeSat is about the size of a Pop-Tarts box, is small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and weighs about two pounds. The satellite travels at a speed of 4.5 miles per second and orbits the Earth from an altitude of about 310 miles.

Students anticipate that the satellite will stay aloft, transmitting messages and live telemetry data about its position in space back to Earth, for at least three months. The satellite is equipped with miniature solar panels and could remain in low Earth orbit for up to two years.

Ultimately, the satellite is expected to fall into Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, at which point the voice synthesizer will be programmed to say, “I’m melting.”

Principal Evan Glazer said that, at a time when U.S. students are being bombarded by standardized tests, the launch of the TJ satellite shows what bright-minded teenagers can achieve when allowed to pursue their own curiosities.

“It’s paramount in our school in general, and it’s the mind-set of: Never underestimate the power of a great idea from high school students,” Glazer said. The satellite is “breaking new barriers with the attention it’s received for this level of success,” he said.

The TJCubeSat project began in fall 2006, but it was hampered along the way by school budget cuts during the economic downturn. Once the satellite was completed, the launch date was delayed by the government shutdown, which temporarily closed NASA’s Wallops Island launchpad.

Glazer said the project was student-led from the beginning and started as an extracurricular club before becoming a systems engineering class. After school funding was curbed during the recession, satellite development became a research project for a select group of seniors.

The program was initially funded with a $30,000 donation from Orbital Sciences Corp., which collaborated with the school through the project’s evolution. About 50 students have taken part in the program since its inception, said Adam Kemp, a teacher at TJ and the TJCubeSat project adviser. Along with a large Air Force satellite, TJCubeSat was accompanied by 27 other cube satellites, including some built by college and graduate engineering students from the University of Florida, the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of New Mexico.

“It’s a testament to the integrity of the students at TJ to be able to start a program at as high a level as this, since there was nothing to base it on,” Kemp said. “It’s pretty impressive that 14- and 15-year-olds had that ability.”

Huddleston, 18, who is studying mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, helped write the flight software for the satellite.

“When it was first going up, it was this really bright light,” said Huddleston, of Leesburg. “It was cool that something I had worked on was in there, going to space.”

The coding, he said, tells the satellite “what it is going to do when we are not talking to it and how it’s going to react while we are on the ground and it’s up in space.”

TJ graduate Nicholas Allegro, 20, an aerospace engineering student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, helped build the satellite and also watched the launch.

“The project was originally designed to show that it could be done at a high school level,” Allegro said. “It was probably the happiest moment of my life, watching that rocket launch. I felt really accomplished and really happy because it had been so long waiting and working for it to go up.”

Alishan Hassan, a 2011 TJ graduate, said that for him, the satellite launch means that the project is no longer “a mere fantasy above the clouds.”

It shows “how far we’ve come from Sputnik,” he said. He said that it “unassumingly inspires young individuals across the globe.”

When the satellite unfurled its antenna, it beamed back a special message to Kemp and his 4-year-old son: “Hey, Sam, my antennas have deployed.”

After that, the satellite sent out its first message to TJ alumni worldwide: “Go Colonials.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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