Merritt Island Mustangs heading for orbit

Space exploration is a constant backdrop to the lives of students at Merritt Island High School. Only a few minutes drive south of Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center, the school’s students can see and hear every launch from the spaceport. Now space exploration is part of the students’ lives. Within the next year, Merritt Island students will send the second high school satellite into orbit.

Merritt Island High School is a public school on the same Florida barrier island as the Kennedy Space Center. The school has a four year engineering-preparatory program called the Da Vinci Academy of Aerospace Technology. Students take courses in engineering and design to supplement the traditional secondary school curriculum. Hands-on technology projects lets the students apply their classroom learning and build a portfolio of experience while at the same time learning from engineers, scientists, and technologists from the surrounding aerospace community.

The launch costs of a small one-kilogram CubeSat can easily exceed $100,000 - well beyond the budgets of a university research project much less of a student research project. Nasa’s CubeSat Launch Initiative and Educational Launches of Nanosatellites, or Elana, address this by letting small satellites hitch a ride on government-funded space launches such as the resupply missions to the International Space Station. As part of Nasa’s education outreach mission, Elana has sought to extend educational CubeSat projects beyond the university and into secondary schools. An Orbital Sciences Minotaur launch vehicle carrying an Air Force satellite also carried the Elana-sponsored TJ3Sat, the first satellite designed and built by high school students. In an interview with the National Science Teachers Association, Merritt Island math teacher Tracey Beatovich said that Nasa chose the school to take part in Elana due to the engineering focus of the DaVinci Academy.

The students on the Merritt Island CubeSat Team named the StangSat after the school’s mascot, the Mustang. They met after-school, on weekends, and during school holidays to develop the satellite. StangSat is part of a technology development project conducted by California Polytechnic University the inventors of the CubeSat standard. CalPoly continues to develop new technologies that make CubeSats even more useful to satellite companies and academic researchers. Their CP9 project will measure thermal and vibration conditions during the launch. The data will let CalPoly improve the CubeSat design and testing standards. StangSat will ride along with CP9. It’s been given a special exemption from Nasa to remain powered during the flight so it can collect data while transmitting it over a WiFi wireless network connection to the CP9. Most satellites remain powered down during a launch to prevent radio interference with the launch vehicle and preserve precious battery life. If the high school students’ project succeeds, future CubeSats may replace complicated and power-hungry radios with wireless network connections to a CubeSat communications hub.

CalPoly and Merritt Island High School tested their satellites in 2013 on a Nasa-sponsored launch of Garvey Spacecraft Corporation’s Prospector-18D suborbital rocket. It rocketed into the skies above the Mojave Desert when, at an altitude of 3,000 meters, parachutes deployed early. The rocket veered off course and crashed into the desert. Fortunately both the CP9 and the StangSat survived and demonstrated their ability to collect data and communicate wirelessly during the rocket flight. The high school students cleared one of the final hurdles in April 2014 when the conducted a Critical Design Review with Nasa engineers. As student Nathan Stephens told Florida Today, "It's one thing to write a 500 word essay in English class, and another to make a 70-slide PowerPoint for making a satellite launch.” 

The only thing left is to wait for Elana to schedule their satellite on an upcoming launch.