TJ³Sat - the First High School Satellite

The first satellite designed and built by high school students reached orbit in November 2013. The launch capped a seven-year effort that gave more than fifty students hands-on engineering experience as aerospace engineers.

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is a public magnet school in the greater Washington, DC, area. It selects students from across six Virginia school districts based on their academic achievement and aptitude for science and mathematics. Over the course of seven years more than 50 students designed the TJ³Sat satellite to engage other students and amateur radio enthusiasts around the world. 

The satellite, based on a Pumpkin CubeSat Kit, used power, communications, and instrumentation systems custom-designed by the students. With advice from volunteers at the project’s corporate sponsors, the students tested their designs in thermal vacuum chambers and vibration tables at the school and then tested their flight hardware at local aerospace company Orbital Science’s Virginia campus. The students designed TJ³Sat’s main instrument, the Text Speak module, to receive text messages, use a synthesizer to convert the messages into an audio signal, and broadcast the messages over amateur radio frequencies. You can find detailed information on the design on the project’s website as well as in a presentation to the 2009 Small Sat Conference.

The students did their own work, but had financial and technical help from area aerospace companies. Orbital Sciences donated the CubeSat kit to the school and provided technical advice and testing services. The Stensat Group, a local CubeSat development firm, advised the students on the electrical systems. Nasa’s Educational Launch of NanoSatellites program paid for the launch costs.

In a presentation to the 2008 Small Sat Conference, the project team discussed the challenges of running a multi-year satellite-development project in a secondary school. Work on the project must compete for time and attention from regular classes and school activities. Much of the work had to done during the school day. A magnet school like Thomas Jefferson draws students from several school districts in Washington, D.C.’s Virginia suburbs which makes after-school programs difficult to support. The challenges weren’t limited to the school year. Experienced students graduated and new students joined the project every year - the project’s first participants had graduated from university by the time the satellite reached orbit. Older participants with two-to-three years experience mentored younger participants, transferring skills and knowledge so the project didn’t have to start from scratch every year. The project’s dependence on mentors from industry also presented challenges - especially in communications. Veteran aerospace engineers and novice teenagers don’t speak the same language.

Despite the challenges, the rigorous approach paid off on the night of November 19, 2013. An Orbital Sciences Minotaur 1 rocket launched from Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility. Twelve minutes later it deployed an experimental satellite for the US Air Force before releasing twenty-eight CubeSats, built by government agencies and research universities… and one high school.

“Since the beginning of the TJ³Sat program, Orbital has purchased flight hardware and contributed mentors and advice throughout the process, as well as assistance with final testing prior to launch,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s President and Chief Executive Officer, in the company’s press release. School Principal Dr. Evan Glazer added that the real-world experience “will serve them well as they continue on their future careers.” 

The successful launch received widespread coverage in the media, including a feature article in the Smithsonian Institute’s Air & Space Magazine. Their accomplishment earned the students a visit from Nasa Administrator and former astronaut Charles Borden. Despite several months of effort, however, the mission never established contact with the spacecraft.