Nasa will help Idaho students launch a satellite into space

This is the second article in my series about amateur satellite making

A school in Idaho won a Nasa contract to send their DIY satellite into orbit. Read on to see how Project daVinci’s students will get hands on experience with an actual space project.

Founded six years ago to serve Idaho’s northern-most counties with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (referred to by educators as “stem”), the North Idaho Stem Charter Academy takes an approach different from most schools. The students only attend school four days a week, but those school days are much longer. That gives the students time for a hands-on, project-based approach to learning.

“A lot of our classes are project-based,” explained Jessica, Project daVinci’s student lead, told me. “A lot of our science classes… have projects instead of normal assignments. We do a lot of First Robotics programs as our [elective] projects. Since we were selected for CubeSat that will be our electives project this semester and then next year.”

CubeSats, satellites that can fit in the palm of your hand, have changed the space industry. This picture shows Nasa's PhoneSat which used a disassembled smartphone as the on-board computer. Credit: Nasa

CubeSats are ten-centimeter-on-a-side satellites so small that a softball would just fit inside. As technology has become smaller, better, and cheaper over the past twenty years, CubeSats have revolutionized the space industry. The small satellites are poised to do the same for stem education.

Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School rode an Orbital Sciences rocket into space in late 2013. This year astronauts on the International Space Station will release a satellite built by primary school students at St Thomas More Cathedral School, also in Virginia. Florida’s Merritt Island High School has built a satellite that will test WiFi in space when it rides into orbit next year. Educational satellites are not restricted to the United States. A Chinese middle school’s satellite will launch in 2018.

Madeline, Project daVinci’s communications lead, explained how her school joined the list. “One of our teachers is very into satellites and the Mars rover and that kind of thing. It just came up as a question like ‘Huh - this would be fun. We should try it and see what happens!’”

“We had to put together an idea of what we wanted our satellite to actually do, whether our mission was educational or scientific. We picked the more educational side, applied, and we got in! It’s exciting!”

Getting into space is not cheap - even for a small satellite. At market rates a CubeSat launch can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nasa brings those costs down through its CubeSat Launch Initiative (CLI). The program lets university, government, and non-profit CubeSats hitch a free ride into space on rockets carrying the space agency’s own satellites. The only condition is that the projects must advance Nasa’s science and technology strategy or, like Project daVinci, serve an educational purpose.

Project daVinci is one of twenty CubeSat projects Nasa picked for a ride into space. The CLI’s seventh round includes an impressive list of projects from places like MIT, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the United States Naval Academy. Nasa described Project daVinci as “an educational mission that will teach students about radio waves, aeronautical engineering, space propulsion, and geography by sending a communication signal to schools around the world.”

“Currently the entire school is not completely involved,” Madeline said.

“Nine are on our team”, Jessica added.

“Later on,” Madeline explained, “we start reaching out to schools around the world.” 

Jessica LaPresta is one of Project daVinci’s teachers (since we have two Jessica’s I will call her “Ms. LaPresta” from here on out). Ms. LaPresta explained that “grade levels K through ten [will] choose the country they would like to learn about and then also communicate [with them].”

“By connecting with other schools within the United States and also in foreign countries,” Jessica said, “our main goal is to get students at all different financial levels, all different grade levels… involved with something as big as launching a satellite into space.”

“We want to show them that you’re not limited to just the normal careers,” Jessica said. “We want to get them introduced to stem learning and stem skills because there’s a huge job market for it. It will be helpful for these students in the future to say ‘I remember when I participated in that!’”

They may be teenagers, but Nasa does not treat Project daVinci any differently from the CLI’s university projects. The space agency has a structured review process that all of the projects must pass before getting a chance to go into space.

“They do have milestones,” Ms. LaPresta said. “We have one coming up this month and they are pretty particular [in terms of] what they want. There is a process but the details of the process are kind of vague. It’s like a typical government document. It has all this information but it doesn’t necessarily show you what you need to do. It’s a huge learning curve to figure out that we’re doing the right things.”

Fortunately, they are not on their own. The fifth largest aerospace cluster in the United States spans communities in northern Idaho and western Washington. Parents and community members will serve as mentors to help the students - and the teachers - learn how to build a CubeSat.

“We are so new to the process,” Ms. LaPresta said. “We are trying to use our mentors to help us to make sure our PDR and CDR and all these documentations are done correctly. We have a lot of support from them. They know more about satellites and everything that’s involved with it than we are even close to knowing. They are offering their experience to help us be successful.”

“Some of the mentors have experience building airplanes,” she added. “Other mentors have experience with radio frequencies and that technology piece. Another mentor knows the software that we’re going to use to help build a prototype.”

Even with the mentors’ help, the nine students on Project daVinci’s core team have a lot of work ahead of them. They plan to tackle the job through a combination of specialization and teamwork.

“Each of the students generally has a lead [role],” Ms. LaPresta explained. “They are supposed to be the experts on that particular thing. Then they help across the board and we work as a team to get things done.”

“We assigned roles,” Jessica said. “That was one of our first things to do so that everybody kind of knew what they were doing. I am project lead as well as financial lead.”

“We have so many other leads,” Madeline said. “Our education lead is going to be the one communicating with the schools around the world. A quality lead will be checking to make sure that our tests are run properly. And then we have our media lead who does press releases and organizes our social media.”

The list goes on from there: ground support lead, spacecraft systems lead, logistics lead - and the charity lead who Ms. LaPresta explained must “figure out how we are going to make this not just [about] benefiting us but also [about] giving back to the community.”

The International Space Station has a special CubeSat dispenser that has become one of the main ways for research and educational satellites to get into orbit. Credit: Nasa

Nasa already gave Project daVinci a target launch date in June 2017. Madeline explained what the pressure to meet that schedule means for the team: “One big thing that has been a struggle for some of the students is the commitment over the summer that is required. You can’t take a month-long vacation - and if you are you have to let people know ahead of time so we can prepare for you not to be there. It’s just a huge commitment everywhere - in time and resources and just everything.”

Other schools might think that kind of schedule - and everything that must be learned in the process - is too daunting a challenge. But these young space engineers think schools should not hesitate.

“If I were to say anything to somebody who’s thinking about trying this,” Jessica said, “it’s that you’re going to think it’s just a dream when you submit your form [to Nasa]. But if you dot your i’s and cross your t’s - and a few months later you’re selected - it’s one of those feelings where you feel like you’re weightless for a minute cause you’re like ‘WOW! We got selected!’ and then you go ‘WAIT!’”

“Now we’ve got a lot of work to do!” Madeline chimed in.