Ever heard of kids sending a satellite into space? On Tuesday, November 19, 2013, the first-ever communications satellite built by high school students—dubbed the “TJ3SAT,”or TJCubeSat —was launched into orbit onboard a Minotaur I rocket, from NASA’s Wallop Flight Facility on Wallops Island Virginia. It’s a project started in 2006 at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), in Alexandria, Virginia, by teacher Adam Kemp. TJ students designed, built, and tested the cube-shaped satellite, which weighs about two pounds. The satellite lets students and amateur radio users send and receive messages from around the world.
How do kids get to make a satellite?
The short answer is: opportunity. Rockets usually have ballast, or weighted material, on board to help steady the flight. Typically, the ballast is just chunks of lead. While Kemp was planning one of his courses he learned that some rockets were carrying satellites in place of lead, and that Stanford University, in California, had come up with satellites called CubeSats. Kemp thought TJ students might like a crack at sending up their own CubeSat.
How does the rocket ride work?
After launch, rockets drop satellites as they travel above the Earth. The Minotaur I rocket dropped 29 satellites at different times and at different altitudes, so that the satellites wouldn’t hit each other. The TJ3SAT was dropped after the rocket climbed 500 kilometers, or about 311 miles, above the Earth. Three months later, the satellite will lose altitude and burn up in the atmosphere.
What does TJ3SAT do?
Its mission is communication. By visiting TJ3SAT’s website, students can submit text messages for approval. Once approved, messages go up to the satellite. There, a device converts text into voice. The messages are then broadcast back to Earth by a radio onboard over ham radio frequency. Ham radio stations are run by amateurs, or hobbyists.
What goes into getting a satellite ready for launch?
In the summer of 2013, Rohan Punnoose, a senior and current TJ3SAT student leader, conducted final testing of the satellite at an Orbital Sciences Corporation facility in Dulles, Virginia. (Orbital Sciences donated $30,000 to buy the space-proof casing that surrounds the satellite.)
“I went to the Orbital Sciences Environmental Testing Building—a giant space place, with giant machines and drums and all these crazy instruments around you—and we put the satellite on what is essentially a sub woofer [[a kind of speaker]] to shake it to make sure it [would] not break during the launch. That was a surreal experience—really amazing to be able to do that. It is a big reckoning point for the satellite. If it doesn’t pass environmental testing, that’s it. But ours did!”
It it fun getting a satellite ready to launch?
For Rohan, the best part was “learning how the satellite works, how the systems come together.” He says he feels lucky to follow the work of seven years of collective experience of some 50 kids who worked on the project before him. He hopes to become an aerospace engineer.
Can other kids make satellites, too?
Yes. Home might not be the best place to build a satellite, but a local high school might have the necessary equipment. You need a computer lab to develop software and a machine shop for hardware. “Just about anyone can do it,” Kemp told TFK. He’s even put the project online here so other schools can build satellites, too. Such projects do cost money, says Rohan, and schools will need to find ways raise the funds needed to get a project off the ground. “Through grant writing—which is a great skill to learn—and allocating enough time, any school can do it.”
What will the first message on TJ3SAT be?
Tune in to find out. You can track the satellite’s path here.