Note: This story was last updated at 2 p.m. March 11.
Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge is the first middle school to ever be selected for a NASA program that launches small cube-shaped satellites into space.
On Friday, the $70,000 science project, which started about three years ago, got a $15,000 boost from Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The Robertsville satellite, which will orbit a few hundred miles above Earth, will use a small camera to try to take pictures of forest regrowth in the Great Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg. That area burned in forest fires fed by high winds after Thanksgiving 2016, killing 14 people and damaging or destroying more than 2,500 homes and businesses.
The RMS satellite, named RamSat, will use a radio to relay its images and other data back to Earth.
A project proposal was submitted to NASA in November, and Oak Ridge Schools learned this month that the RMS proposal had been accepted.
“This is such an exciting opportunity for the students!” said Peter Thornton, one of the RamSat team leaders from ORNL. “They will now have the chance to design, build, carry out, and own a satellite mission.”
ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia delivered the $15,000 check to Robertsville Middle School on Friday morning. The ceremony was attended by Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers, RMS teacher Todd Livesay, seventh- and eighth-grade students in Livesay’s NASA enrichment class, Oak Ridge Schools administrators, Thornton and other ORNL scientists, and other project volunteers.
Once RamSat is in space, major challenges will include correctly orienting the satellite, which won’t have propulsion, and taking pictures of the right spot on the ground as the satellite flies by at somewhere around 17,500 miles per hour in low-Earth orbit.
“It’s very technically challenging to get to that point,” said Thornton, group leader for the terrestrial systems modeling group at ORNL. “If we get that far, it’ll be a big success.”
A launch date hasn’t been set, but it’s expected to be in 2020, Thornton said. He said RamSat is near the top of the launch list.
The Robertsville satellite could stay in orbit for about a year before plunging back to Earth and presumably burning up in the atmosphere. It will orbit the Earth about every 90 minutes at the altitude of the International Space Station, which ranges from a low of 190 miles to a high of 330 miles. It will be overhead for a maximum of about five minutes at a time. A network of ham radio operators, including Butch Alline of Oak Ridge, will help communicate with the satellite, transmitting and receiving data, including pictures.
The goal of RamSat, an educational mission, is to develop and implement a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculum, or STEM curriculum, for middle school students who want to build a cube satellite, or CubeSat.
It’s not groundbreaking science, but it is groundbreaking education, Thornton said. The seventh- and eight-grade students in “the NASA class” at Robertsville, a third-period enrichment class taught by Todd Livesay, love it.
“We’ve got kids walking out of here (who) want to work for NASA,” said Livesay, an RMS Gateway to Technology and STEM teacher.
During their time in his class, the students have learned important lessons in engineering and computer programming, studied batteries and solar panels, and designed and printed their own plastic CubeSat prototypes using the six 3D printers in their class.
“It’s made me think about the different types of careers that NASA offers and engineering and about whether I might want to do them in the future,” said Tristin Del Toro, an eighth-grader at Robertsville in her second year in the class.
Thornton thinks the middle school students can, with time, accomplish their mission. He is one of seven people in a core group of adult volunteers, not including staff members from Oak Ridge Schools, who are helping the 32 Robertsville Middle School students with the RamSat project.
“It’s just so inspiring,” Thornton said.
NASA employee Patrick Hull, a 1992 graduate of Oak Ridge High School, proposed the project to Livesay at church in the winter of 2015, and he has helped Robertsville since then, often communicating with Livesay and his class through FaceTime, an online application used for video calls.
One goal of the project is to develop a curriculum and allow students in any district to be able to build a CubeSat, said Holly Cross, Oak Ridge Schools supervisor of career readiness and communications, and Tracey Beckendorf-Edou, executive director of teaching and learning.
“For a middle school to do this is extraordinary,” Beckendorf-Edou said.
The small cube-shaped satellites like the one being built by Robertsville Middle School are a type of spacecraft called nanosatellites. They come in different unit sizes, or Us.
A one-cube satellite, a 1U, measures 10 centimeters high by 10 centimeters wide by 10 centimeters deep. That’s about four inches on each side. These satellites can weigh less than three pounds and have a volume of about one quart.
The Robertsville satellite is currently a 2U design, but that could change, Thornton said. A 2U CubeSat is 20 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters.
There are also 3U and 6U CubeSats. The launch of the CubeSats, an in-kind contribution by NASA, is reported to be valued at up to $300,000.
A team of Robertsville Middle School students, educators, and Oak Ridge scientists submitted a 159-page proposal for their project in November. RMS wanted to be part of NASA’s Cube Satellite Launch Initiative. That program provides opportunities for small satellite payloads built by schools and nonprofit organizations to fly on upcoming launches. The RMS team hoped to send its small student-designed satellite into space with a camera, radio, and other equipment.
In a March 2 letter, Oak Ridge Schools learned that the RMS proposal had been accepted. It’s one of 21 satellites selected or prioritized for the ninth round of the Cube Satellite Launch Initiative. The small cube-shaped satellites, or CubeSats, could fly as auxiliary payloads on planned NASA missions, other U.S. government or commercial space flight missions, or be deployed from the International Space Station in the next few years: 2019, 2020, and 2021.
The Robertsville project is in elite company. Other organizations on the list of new CubeSat selections or those who have been prioritized include Cornell University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NASA’s Ames Research Center, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, University of California, and AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, among other prestigious organizations.
It’s not clear yet where the RMS satellite frame will be built. Among the options briefly mentioned Friday were two ORNL manufacturing facilities—the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility in Hardin Valley and the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility in west Oak Ridge—and the metal fabrication shop at Oak Ridge High School.
Thornton said the students will be able to prototype, design, and build the RamSat and program its flight computer during the next two years. They’ve already built and 3D-printed a 2U prototype that has a frame, camera, microprocessor, and solar panels. (A 3D printer can print items a layer at a time using materials such as plastic or carbon fiber.)
Among the equipment that will be included onboard the satellite will be a camera, flight control computer, a radio transceiver and antenna, electrical power supply, and solar panels. The flight computer will control the radio, power, satellite orientation, sensors, and camera system. A battery will be required because about half of the orbit will be in the dark, when the solar panels won’t generate power.
The estimated cost to build the proposed 2U satellite and fit all the equipment, including the solar panels, is about $70,000. It’s not clear where the other $55,000 will come from after ORNL’s $15,000 donation on Friday, but school staff members and project volunteers have some additional fundraising ideas. In-kind contributions will be accepted. Keeping the satellite within budget is part of the “real world” nature of the project.
Thornton said the vegetation monitoring camera that will be inside the satellite will probably have a resolution lower than a cell phone camera. One of the limiting factors in the resolution will be the data link through radio communications. It will be a slow download rate, Thornton said.
The camera will have a fixed field of view—in other words, the camera won’t zoom in and out—and it’s not clear how wide that field of view will be. The primary mission is to take pictures of forest regrowth in the Gatlinburg area, but the camera could take pictures of other parts of the Earth as well.
When the satellite launches, those involved hope to bring any student or former student who was involved in the project to the launch site, said Michele Thornton, a geographic information system analyst at ORNL who has also helped with the project.
It’s not clear yet where the launch site will be or which spacecraft will carry RamSat into orbit. That will be determined later. Florida is one option, said Michele Thornton. NASA will negotiate with the school for a launch spot, Peter Thornton said.
After RamSat launches, ham radio operators such as Alline, a retired mechanical engineer with the call sign K8KO, will communicate with the satellite from ground stations. They hope to have RamSat under computer control and will communicate over radio frequencies of 140 megahertz and 440 megahertz, using “uplinks” and “downlinks.” The operators will transmit data, help with RamSat command and control, help “detumble” the satellite, and receive its pictures, which will be transmitted as binary data.
Melissa R. Allen, a research scientist in the Computational Sciences and Engineering Division at ORNL, said RamSat will use devices known as magnetorquers to point the satellite to the Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetorquers will have to be purchased, but the students will be taught how to “wind their own,” Allen said.
“I’m really looking forward to the adventure,” she said.
Among the factors that will be used to orient the satellite will be magnetic field, the magnetic moment arm of the satellite, and the magnetic field of the Earth. RamSat will operate on a basic torque equation that involves a type of mathematics known as matrix algebra, Allen said. The intent is to automate those calculations in the flight computer, she said.
As RamSat navigates in orbit, sensors located on the cube satellite will transmit data back to Earth. Information received back from ground stations will help the satellite orient itself, Allen said.
“It’s a very complicated project,” Peter Thornton said.
But Allen said the programming will be simplified as much as possible, some team members will help, and some of the algorithms are already available.
Thornton said almost all of the programming that will be necessary is within the student’s abilities, and they’ve already done some programming with the microprocessor, the prototype for the satellite’s flight computer.
They want to buy as much of the equipment as possible “off the shelf.”
Measures of success for the RamSat project will include getting the satellite into orbit, communicating with it by radio, getting it into position, and sending pictures. Thornton said he thinks those accomplishments are feasible.
Presenting the $15,000 check on Friday, Zacharia, the ORNL director, said the laboratory wants to expose the next generation of scientists to projects like RamSat. He’s been in Oak Ridge for 30 years, Zacharia said, and it’s a great place to work. He hopes some of the students might one day conduct research at ORNL, Zacharia said.
The RamSat project started as a collaboration between Livesay, the STEM teacher at RMS, and Hull, the NASA employee who is technical assistant for the Structural and Mechanical Design Branch of the Engineering Directorate at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Both men attended Jefferson Junior High School, which is now Jefferson Middle School, and both graduated from Oak Ridge High School. They weren’t in the same graduating class, but they had met before their collaboration started on RamSat.
Robertsville was looking for STEM activities for students—Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers has been a STEM advocate—when Hull proposed the project during the discussion at church in the winter of 2015, Livesay said.
After Hull made his proposal to Livesay, former RMS Principal Bruce Lay, who is now executive director of school leadership for Oak Ridge Schools, encouraged Livesay to pursue the project.
In the first year, students researched several CubeSat topics before they started design work. Among the topics: the history of CubeSats, the types of rockets used to deliver CubeSats, experiments that had been tried with CubeSats, and how NASA deploys the small satellites.
After they finished their research, RMS students began designing 1U CubeSats with Autodesk Inventor, a 3D modeling program. Once they were satisfied with their designs, they made full-scale prototypes with their additive manufacturing machine, a 3D printer.
The first year was so successful, Livesay said, they decided to pursue NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.
After RMS students printed the full-scale prototypes using their 3D printer, Hull next challenged the children to design a door that would open remotely in space, a significant challenge. The students learned some important lessons during a review of that project.
In May 2016, the class traveled to Marshall Space Flight Center to present its work to a NASA review panel. Three days after that visit, Hull received a call from Cape Canaveral, according to a two-page history of the RamSat project provided by Livesay.
“It seems that word had somehow reached them that a bunch of kids from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, had visited Marshall Space Flight Center and were working on a CubeSat design,” the history said. “The person at Canaveral had encouraged Dr. Hull to contact us about an opportunity (to) participate in CubeSat Launch Initiative. Mr. Livesay was reluctant to commit to a project like this without serious mentoring from the two federal facilities in Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge National Laboratory and CNS Y-12 (the Y-12 National Security Complex) definitely had the resources but how (to) partner with them was unknown.
“After several months, contacts were made, and a group of scientists and engineers came together to mentor us through this amazing opportunity.”
The group spent several months researching experiments to send into space and presenting those ideas to Hull, the history said.
“We finally decided to observe the reforestation of the Smoky Mountains after a wildfire destroyed a large area around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Gatlinburg is pretty close to Oak Ridge and (a) popular place for locals to visit.”
After determining their mission, the students then started researching the components of a CubeSat, including batteries, onboard computers, sensors, magnetorquers, telemetry, and solar panels.
“This was very complicated, and as we researched, we had more questions than answers!” the history said.
The students had a second review at Marshall Space Flight Center, and this time, their mentors went with them.
During the summer, the mentors and school staff met regularly to prepare their 2017 proposal for the CubeSat Launch Initiative. Now in their third year, they officially named their mission RamSat.
“While all of the proposal documents were being prepared, we have been designing and 3D printing our own 2U RamSats,” the history said. “We will use these for prototyping the individual systems along with the real RamSat, which we hope to see fly one day.”
Students, adults both contribute
Besides Lay, another former RMS principal, Garfield Adams, also helped with RamSat, joining Livesay to meet with ORNL to ask for help in late 2016, among other assistance provided by Adams. Adams and Hull, the NASA mentor, know each other, Livesay said.
Most of the adult volunteers helping with RamSat are from ORNL. RamSat fits into the educational mission of the lab, Michele Thornton said.
But there is also an engineer from the Y-12 National Security Complex, Eric Sampsel, helping with the design process and assisting with quality control in an effort to prevent failure. Other adult volunteers include Alline, the ham radio operator who is also a retired mechanical engineer, and Ian Goethert, who works for AllMeds, an Oak Ridge company, and is helping with curriculum development, programming, and the flight computer.
“This project has really taken a lot of support,” Beckendorf-Edou said.
Besides those volunteers and school staff members that attended Friday’s check presentation, there have been others who helped with short-term projects, Beckendorf-Edou said. One was a technical review panel, and the other was an educational merit panel. The technical review volunteers mainly came from ORNL, while the educational merit review volunteers were Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow alumni.
The core Oak Ridge Schools staff working on RamSat include Livesay, Cross, Beckendorf-Edou, RMS administrators, and Eli Manning, who is preparing “the next wave of NASA students through Career Exploration classes” and teaching virtually every student at RMS, Cross said. Manning has about 650 students throughout the year on a rotating basis.
Peter Thornton, one of the ORNL volunteers, coordinated the writing of the 159-page proposal submitted by RMS to NASA. It includes the actual proposal, which is limited to 10 pages, and appendices. The document submitted to NASA took the ideas that the children had recommended and turned them into a proposal, Thornton said.
Thomas Schultz, an eighth-grader at RMS, is one of those students. In “the NASA class,” students are now working on a robotics project they call Mars Rover, Schultz said.
“It is definitely enlightening on the options,” Schultz said of the class and how it helps illuminate possible career paths. “It really shows what I can do when I grow up…Building the Rover, that was a lot of fun.”
Del Toro, the eighth-grader mentioned earlier, said she has designed and printed her own CubeSat in the class, and helped with the research that went into the proposal that she and her classmates submitted to NASA.
When they learned that NASA had selected their satellite project for launch, “I was really excited,” Del Toro said. “It made us really feel important…It would be something that would be really cool to launch.”
Lilli Finstad, a seventh-grader in the class, said she has always liked science and has looked forward to being in the NASA enrichment class since fifth grade. She’s always wanted to do something that could help her with a job later, Finstad said.
“I thought NASA was a great opportunity to do that,” she said. “This class gives me a lot of opportunity.”
Among the other lessons that students have learned—besides building Mars Rovers and doing their own 3D printing and design—is learning to program small systems that the class will put together later in a larger system.
Students are given guidance and instructions, but they also have some independence in Livesay’s class and are expected to “figure out” solutions, Finstad said.
“He tries to make us be problem-solvers,” she said. “We just love being in this class.”
RMS eighth-grader Janie Hiatt, a student in a STEM class taught by Livesay, designed the logo for RamSat in digital art. So how does it feel knowing that her logo is on a project that could go into space?
“That feels special,” Hiatt said.
Thornton said the RamSat students will be the mission scientists, the communication specialists, and the logistics experts.
“They will calculate orbits, learn to aim their satellite camera at selected targets on the ground, radio their commands to RamSat, and receive and interpret the digital data streams broadcast by RamSat, containing imagery and all the other important data gathered onboard,” Thornton said. “They’ll be working as a team to identify and solve problems, and they will be working with NASA professionals to integrate RamSat into the launch and deployment missions. I can’t think of a more exciting project to ignite the students’ curiosity and passion for science and engineering.”
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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