Small Satellites for Secondary Students

Students take the next step towards space science thanks to Small Satellites for Secondary Students. Teacher workshops and open source hardware and software provide affordable resources for schools to develop scientific payloads for high-power rocket launches or high-altitude balloon flights.

Scientists at Sonoma State University developed the S4 program to address a gap they saw in Nasa’s educational rocketry pipeline. Students who mastered the Team America Rocketry Challenge could participate in the middle and high school contests of the Student Launch Initiative. Research programs for undergraduate and graduate students developed more advanced skills. Nasa’s contests, research programs, and internships formed a pipeline that prepare America’s youth for careers in the space industry. But there was a gap between the first two stages. The Team America Rocketry Challenge lets thousands of students design their own model rockets and launch the rockets as high as 250 meters. A few dozen middle and high school teams could participate in the Student Launch Initiative. They designed more powerful rockets with scientific payloads that flew over a kilometer high. The SLI’s rockets were a natural progression from Team America’s model rockets, but the experimental design required skills and resources that many teachers and students didn’t have. That gap became worse in 2013 when Nasa cancelled many of its secondary school outreach programs, including the Student Launch Initiative. 

The S4 program concentrates on bridging the gap. Researchers, educators, and amateur rocketry enthusiasts developed hardware, software, and an educational program that lets teachers and informal educators learn how to design scientific payloads. California’s Sonoma State University organizes the S4 program under a Nasa grant with help from the Tripoli Rocket Association and the Endeavor Institute. Educators attend a summer workshop where they learn how to design and construct experiments. The teachers learn the principles of electronics and the practical skills of soldering components and integrating systems. They build the experiment and program the Arduino-based control system. At the end of the workshop they fly their experiments on balloons and high-performance rockets launched by Tripoli members. Wireless routers collect data during flight as the rockets reach altitudes approaching two kilometers. 

You can find all of the presentations, teachers’ guides, videos of workshop sessions, software, and hardware design on the S4 website. Although the hardware is meant to be as affordable as possible, a single basic experiment requires several hundred dollars of electronic components. The program’s organizers are trying to find suppliers that can bring the costs down further.

The educators take what they learned and help their classrooms, science clubs, or scout troops conduct their own scientific flights. If they can’t find a local Tripoli member to host a rocket launch, teachers can fly a tethered weather balloon to altitudes approaching 300 meters without worrying about FAA regulations. Schools can also participate in the Endeavor Institute’s Balloon Fest events. Student teams fly tethered scientific balloons and present their data to their peers and judges. Teams can earn certificates and awards in a range of categories from Most Data to Most Unusual Idea to Best Use of Color.