Engineer Will Walton helps seventh-graders Tino Mahlunge, David Korendyke and Creighton Quaadman attach a satellite to a weather balloon. (Moira E. McLaughlin/The Washington Post)

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a satellite launched by students at the St. Thomas More Cathedral School!

Students at the Arlington school are trying to make history by being the first elementary school in the world to launch a satellite into space. A satellite is something that orbits (or goes around) the Earth. Many satellites send photos and information — such as what the temperature is in space — down to a computer on our planet.

Learning about satellites

Last week, the students, with the help of computer teacher Melissa Pore, conducted the first test of their satellite, which is called a CubeSat. It weighs three pounds and is about the size of a tissue box. They attached the satellite to a helium-filled weather balloon that was connected by rope to a truck. The students watched as the engineers who brought the weather balloon loosened the ropes, allowing the balloon to fly like a kite. The satellite rose 800 feet into the air. (That’s almost 250 feet higher than the Washington Monument.) Then the engineers brought the balloon and satellite back down.

The test was mostly to see if two cameras attached to the satellite would work. Not only did they work, but they took a photo of the hundreds of students in the school parking lot below.

“We didn’t know much about satellites until this year,” said eighth-grader Madelyn Perez-Macz. “I just knew they sent images, but now I know a lot more, like how they get up there and that some fall and some keep going.”

A weather balloon carrying the satellite from St. Thomas More Cathedral School soars into the air. (Moira E. McLaughlin/The Washington Post)

How the school will get its satellite into space is another thing to figure out. Pore said it will probably hitch a ride on a NASA rocket.

More work

Last week was just one of many tests the students will have to do before they launch their satellite into space, which probably won’t happen until late 2014 or early 2015. The satellite will most likely orbit the Earth for about three months, said Joe Pellegrino, a dad at the school who works for NASA and has been helping the students. If all goes well, their satellite will pass over the school a couple of times a day, sending photos by computer to the students.

But even if the satellite launch never happens, the goal is to get the students interested in space and science. Second-graders Colin Richardson and Travis Pore helped attach the camera to the satellite. They said they want to work for NASA when they grow up.

“This year has been really fun learning about space and science,” Madelyn said.

Next fall, the kids will focus on their next challenge: making solar panels so that the satellite can be powered by the sun.

Moira E. McLaughlin