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Historic Launch Puts Satellite Built By Fairfax Students Into Orbit

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The TJ3Sat team looks skyward as the Minotaur I rocket entered its third stage.
Chris Chester/WAMU
The TJ3Sat team looks skyward as the Minotaur I rocket entered its third stage.

It was a historic day at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia Tuesday night, as a group of current and former students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology celebrated the launch of TJ3Sat — the first satellite built by high school students ever to be launched into space.

Students seize on opportunities

TJ3Sat was just one of 28 small "cubesat" satellites, many built by universities across the country, sent into low Earth orbit Tuesday night. The excitement was palpable in the viewing area in the minutes before the Minotaur I rocket took flight, despite a 45-minute delay.

Few people anticipated the launch quite as much as Thomas Jefferson senior and TJ3Sat Student Leader Rohan Punnoose.

"This is probably one of the most amazing days of my life," said Punnoose. "This is a life-changing experience."

Punnoose is just one of the more than 50 students who worked on the TJ3Sat program over the course of seven years.

Teacher and project adviser Adam Kemp first developed a course in systems engineering with the help of engineers at the Orbital Sciences Corporation. Under his guidance, students designed the mission parameters, wrote the software, and then actually built the satellite.

"Eight years ago, we knew we weren't going to launch that year, but those kids persevered, they came up with great ideas," Kemp said. "And we're standing here today because of all the 50 plus students who have worked on this project."

The payoff for students is significant. Thomas Jefferson alumnus Nicholas Allegro says he worked on TJ3Sat from the end of his sophomore year through the end of high school. He's now studying aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and has spent three summers interning at Orbital Sciences Corporation.

"I want to be an astronaut. That's been my dream ever since I was a little kid," Allegro said. "It's not something that I just say I'm going to do, it's really going to happen."

Science offers chances for everyone

TJ3Sat has benefits that go beyond the students at Thomas Jefferson. The project's mission objective is to be a tool for educational outreach.

The 10-centimeter cube is equipped with a voice synthesizer that allows students from around the globe to submit approved text strings on the TJ3Sat website, which are transmitted to the satellite and then broadcast over amateur radio frequencies. Properly equipped classrooms can also receive health telemetry data over the radio for the duration of the satellite's six-month mission life.

They have also built a website that allows for real-time tracking of the satellite as it continues its orbit.

"I think it's fantastic to have Thomas Jefferson here, because they can be an example that will get other kids inspired," said Leland Melvin, a former astronaut and Associate Administrator for Education at NASA. "One of the things I told the whole student body here is that, 'You guys get it — you're doing it. But grab somebody who doesn't get it and help them along.'"

Melvin said the hope is that the teams that put the cubesats into orbit on Tuesday will pay it forward and help to get the next generation as excited about science as they are.

"I don't care if you've flown in the shuttle, been to the space station, seen the Apollo rockets take off. When you hear the countdown and see the fire ignite and see this thing going up, you're always, always excited," Melvin said. "You never lose that interest and curiosity in seeing that rocket going up."

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