Students put satellite into space with help of mentor Orbital Sciences Corp.
It was pretty unbelievable. We could see the rocket on the pad; we could see its white light,” says Rohan Punnoose, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria about the night he watched a satellite he helped to create launch on a Minotaur I rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. “Then we saw giant orange plumes coming from the rocket. We saw it take off, and there was a delay before we heard it. We got bowled over by the shock waves of sound,” explains Punnoose, who plans to pursue a career in the space industry.
Punnoose and other members of the TJ team were the first high school students in the world to design, build and launch a satellite. The 4-inch CubeSat was one of 29 launched Nov. 19. by Dulles-based Orbital Sciences, one of the world’s leading space and technology companies. (In September, Orbital’s rockets were used in two high-profile launches from Wallops Island: the Cygnus spacecraft, and LADEE, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.) Orbital provided the students with the kit to make the satellite, and mentors from the company, including systems engineer Carlos Neiderstrasser lent their support. With the help of TJ teacher Adam Kemp, the mentors worked with about 50 students over the seven-plus years that it took to create the single satellite, from deciding its purpose (a voice synthesizer that turns text messages into voice) to design, testing and final assembly.
Now that the satellite is in orbit, the students can begin communications. Eventually, “Anyone around the world can go to the school’s website, type in a short message” and have it transmitted and broadcasted to the satellite, says Niederstrasser. The voice synthesizer, he notes, “kind of sounds like Max Headroom.”
“The fact that they were able to do this is just inspirational,” says TJ principal Dr. Evan Glazer, who has received congratulatory emails from all over the country. “Knowing that our school can serve as a beacon of hope to younger students in a way that they feel excited to pursue science and technology is exciting to me.”
Seeing the launch, says Niederstrasser, was “definitely awe-inspiring. The sky lights up around you. It looks like a mini-sun has just turned on right in front of you.
“Just four months ago, they were holding the satellite in their hands, putting the last screws in. Four months later, it’s inside a rocket going into orbit.” Awesome indeed. TJHSST.edu/students/activities/tj3sat