Nation & World News

First Satellite Developed By High Schoolers Sent Into Space

By Greg Henderson on November 20th, 2013

The first satellite ever developed by high school students to make it to space is believed to be orbiting Earth after getting a ride aboard a U.S. military rocket Tuesday night from Wallops Island, Va.

Fittingly, perhaps, you can send it a text message.

The satellite, using a voice synthesizer, is built to transform that text into an audio message that can be heard over certain radio frequencies around the globe, and in different languages.

The 2-pound TJ3Sat was built by about 50 students over the past seven years at the public Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., working with volunteers from its corporate sponsor, Orbital Sciences.

It was carried aboard the Minotaur 1 rocket that lifted off at about 8:15 p.m. ET from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA had projected that the launch could be seen by millions along the East Coast.

About an hour after launch, the satellite builders tweeted that the satellite should have deployed into orbit, but confirmation would likely take until Wednesday.

“The idea is that schools around the world can have a limited ground station and be certified on amateur frequencies to be able to communicate to the satellite and back down,” Adam Kemp, the teacher in charge of the project at Thomas Jefferson, told WJLA-TV.

The Washington Post explains:

“The satellite is designed to receive messages the students send into space, and it will then rebroadcast those messages using radio waves that can be heard around the globe via ham radio. (Listeners should be able to tune into the messages at 437.32 MHz +/- 0.013, according to the team.) The satellite’s voice synthesizer will interpret lines of text phonetically, meaning that with slight tweaks in word structure, the messages can be ‘spoken’ in any language.”

“In a class of nanosatellites known for their distinctive cube shape, the TJCubeSat is about the size of a Pop-Tarts box, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and weighing about two pounds. The satellite is expected to orbit the Earth from an altitude of about 310 miles.”

The TJ3Sat was one of 28 nanosatellites aboard the Minotaur 1 rocket. The rocket’s main payload, considerably larger, was the Air Force’s Space Test Program Satellite-3.

“Up until about 20 years ago, only governments would have been able to do it,” Carlos Niederstrasser, a systems engineer at Orbital Science, told WJLA. “About 10 years ago, universities started to get involved and now you have the ability of high schools very early in their career able to get their hands dirty working on a real space program that’s going to go into space orbit.”

The Post, which calls the 29 total satellites a record for a single rocket launch, reports: “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 the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, at which point the voice synthesizer will be programmed to say ‘I’m melting.’ ”

Space.com has information about each of the 29 satellites.

Thomas Jefferson High, an academically elite magnet school and one of the top public high schools in the nation, has downloadable instructions for amateur radio operators who want to make contact with the satellite.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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