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Fairfax County School To Put First Student-Built Satellite In Orbit

A nanosatellite on the CubeSat standard measures just 10 centimeters to a side.
Wikimedia Commons
A nanosatellite on the CubeSat standard measures just 10 centimeters to a side.

A small satellite built by students of Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will be hitching a ride on an Orbital Minotaur I rocket out of NASA Wallops Flight Facility later this month.

Weighing just three pounds and measuring just 10 centimeters to a side, the nanosatellite is the product of seven years of work by more than 50 students from Thomas Jefferson. Nicknamed TJ3Sat, it will be the first functional satellite ever built by high school students.

Teacher Adam Kemp developed a course in systems engineering with the help of the Orbital Sciences Corporation. The class guided students through the process of designing and constructing the fully-functional spacecraft.

Input from Orbital engineers was crucial to the project, but the students, between 14 and 18 years old, did much of the heavy lifting themselves.

"The students worked with me and the engineers through the design of all the components that go on the satellite, writing up the software, and then actually constructing it," Kemp says.

The main objective of TJ3Sat is educational outreach — telemetry data will be available to schools on a public website, so students and educators can track the satellite's progress. Strings of text can also be sent from the website into orbit, and beamed back down using a voice synthesizer on amateur radio frequencies.

Besides being an educational tool for others, the project has also been a boon for students at Thomas Jefferson. Kemp says having the construction of a satellite on their resume has helped launch the careers of many of the original students who worked on the project.

"I’m writing recommendation letters for all the Ivy Leagues and the major universities," Kemp says. "Most of the kids who worked on the project went on to work in aerospace and mechanical engineering — working for Orbital, NASA."

Work on TJ3Sat has continued as a senior research project supervised by Kemp, but he says he hopes to bring along as many former students as he can for the launch later this month.

Looking toward the future, Kemp says he doesn't know whether he'll be able to do better than having his students work with NASA, but he's going to try.

"I think my next goal is to see how a project of this magnitude can be scaled to a one or two year project," Kemp says. "So I’m looking at all the reviews and the lessons learned and we might do something like a high-altitude balloon that takes a lot of the elements we learned in building the satellite, but removes all the bureaucracy."

The launch is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 19, with a launch window between 5:30 and 9:30 p.m.

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