November 20, 2013
Packed tightly among the 28 tiny satellites hitching a ride on last night’s ORS-3 rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia, spaceport was the first-ever satellite built by high school students.
That’s right—space has now been conquered by super-smart teenagers.
TJ3SAT is named for the state-chartered magnet school where it was built, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. The “3” stands for cubed—the 10 x 10 x 11-centimeter satellite is part of a family of spacecraft called cubesats, whose size and shape are standardized to make them easier to fit into the leftover space around bigger launch payloads.
The project began in 2006 as a course in systems engineering, in collaboration with Orbital Sciences, the Virginia-based company that funded the project. Orbital gave technical guidance to the students, but they built the satellite themselves. Once in orbit, TJ3SAT will receive messages from students and amateur radio operators all around the world and, through phonetic voice synthesizer software, speak the messages “aloud” over a designated radio frequency so they can be heard on the ground.
Adam Kemp, the faculty sponsor for the project, had no trouble getting students excited about sending a satellite to space. He likens Thomas Jefferson to Hogwarts, the wizarding school of Harry Potter fame (U.S. News & World Report ranks it the fourth best high school in the country). “The kids really want to be there,” he says, “so we can take advantage of the fact that they want to be there and start proposing these really high-level tasks. And the kids just eat it up.”
Over the past nearly eight years, Kemp estimates about 50 students have participated in the cubesat project. Almost all have graduated, and many have gone on to top engineering schools like MIT, and from there to jobs in the aerospace industry. At one point the school’s administration cut the course under which TJ3SAT was being built, but Kemp and a few students carried on under the auspices of a senior research project. Over the last few months, only senior Rohan Punnoose has been directly involved in seeing the project through to its hour of glory.
Punnoose is already an accomplished engineer—among other things he’s led another team at Thomas Jefferson in building and successfully deploying an autonomous rover from a high-powered rocket. But, he says, TJ3SAT is the coolest thing he’s ever done. Standing in a chilly field a few miles from the launch pad with Kemp and several former students who worked on the project, Punnoose got to watch his school’s crowning achievement blast into space on a sun-bright arc of fire and sound. The kids cheered while Kemp let out a euphoric laugh.
“Alright, TJ!” he shouted.
Like many cubesats, TJ3SAT had to wait for its ride to space. The team’s opportunity finally came when there was extra room on Orbital’s Minotaur I rocket, which was delivering a larger and much more expensive satellite into orbit (the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3 will measure the sun’s energy output). TJ3SAT made it onto the manifest through NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program, along with cubesats from nine universities around the country. Punnoose had the honor of escorting his school’s completed cubesat to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where it was added to the payload that would eventually be shipped to Wallops for the launch. “I was the last person to touch it, which is amazing,” he says.
Punnoose says the cubesat, if it works, should last at least a few months, but could go a couple of years before it no longer answers its mail. The cubesat itself, like any technology, will eventually stop working, but it may deorbit and burn up in the earth’s atmosphere long before that.
In the meantime, TJ3SAT has a lot of work to do. Amateur radio operators can start submitting short messages on the project’s website today after the satellite makes its first pass within range of the ground station at Thomas Jefferson, and if all goes well, the spacecraft will start talking immediately.
The first official message TJ3SAT returns to earth will be something like “Go Colonials,” a shout-out to the high school’s mascot. But before that will be another message, some kind of inside joke between the satellite and its makers, but Punnoose won’t let on what it is.
“That’s a secret,” he says, practically winking at the sky.
Mark Betancourt is a writer based in Washington D.C. and a frequent contributor to Air & Space.
December 3, 2012
If you grew up near Bethpage, New York in the early 1960s, you probably were obsessed with the Apollo Lunar Module built by the Long Island-based Grumman Corporation. And if you were an extremely prescient teenager, you might have started amassing your own world-class collection of space-related items, including photographs, manuscripts, and prints.
This Wednesday, Bonhams is auctioning off one such private collection. In a video on Bonhams’ Website, the collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains that he grew up “during the height of the windup to the Apollo era,” just a few miles from Grumman, and many of the fathers in his neighborhood worked on the Lunar Module. “I was working towards a goal fairly early on,” he recalls in the video. “In my early- to mid-teens, what I wanted to do was to have an exhibition focusing on unmanned space travel.”
Many of the items are one-of-a kind. The lunar photomosaic above (see the full image here), was made as a five-foot-wide presentation piece in 1966, and was painstakingly assembled by Kay Larson of the U.S. Geological Survey using images captured by Surveyor 1. “I’m lucky to have found this—it would have been thrown in the trash, eventually,” the collector notes.
There are objects relating to Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, but Earth’s moon is the centerpiece of this show. Some of the items predate the space age. One particularly lovely object is a photograph made up of four large-format quadrants of the moon, taken in 1899, and probably created for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The photogravures, by Pierre Henri Puiseux and Maurice Loewy, were taken at the Paris Observatory. “It was only with NASA’s Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s,” reads the collection note, “that images substantially better than those of Loewy and Puiseux were obtained.” The plates are from Puiseux and Loewy’s Atlas photographique de la lune. The two men were able to photograph the moon only during perfect weather, the catalog notes, which meant just 50 or 60 nights each year—explaining why the Atlas took 14 years to complete. These may be the first oversize plates from the Atlas to come up for auction, and are expected to bring $12,000 to $18,000.
British pastel portraitist John Russell (the appointed painter to the King and the Prince of Wales) was so fascinated with the moon that he created a lunar globe in 1797, which he called a Selenographia. Russell spent many years drawing and observing the moon; his globe even accounts for lunar motion, or libration. No more than 11 Selenographias are believed to exist; six are in public collections. This example, lot number 23, is expected to fetch between $200,000 to $300,000.
October 31, 2012
As we celebrate all things weird and wonderful on Halloween, let’s take a look at some of the stranger objects donated to the Smithsonian over the years. The photograph above shows two model airplanes designed and built by Frank Ehling in the 1970s. Take a closer look — the models are powered by flies. As Kathy Hanser wrote for the National Air and Space Museum’s blog in 2009, “The one-fly design [on the right] has a wingspan of two inches, and the two-fly version, which features a delta-wing design, is four inches wide.” Ehling’s 2001 obituary in the Washington Post, writes Hanser, described the designer’s fly-harnessing method: “…Ehling honed an effective technique involving cupping a fly with his hands and then hurling it to the ground to knock it unconscious. He would then dab glue on its rear end, carefully avoiding its delicate wings, and attach the fly to the plane.”
The strange device on the right, known as an Armbrust Cup, traveled around the globe with Charles and Anne Lindbergh in the 1930s. The cup, writes Museum education specialist Tim Grove, “converts condensation from breath into drinking water—for use in emergency landings at sea. Since weight restrictions were an ever-present challenge, the Lindberghs could take only a limited supply of water. Lindbergh had read about this new invention before his solo flight across the Atlantic and took one along.”
The Armbrust Cup was originally donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but was eventually sent to the United States Air Force Museum. In 1959 the cup was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution’s Air Museum. It’s currently on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
Our final item is this somewhat creepy-looking android. It was built around 1962 at the Illinois Institute of Technology, writes Paul Ceruzzi, the Museum’s Chair of the Division of Space History, to test space suits for NASA. “It was intended to be installed in a prototype suit (on Earth), and its limbs would be set in motion that closely resembled what a human suit wearer would do. Strain gauges would tell how much force was required to move in a suit, and therefore how much effort an astronaut needed to wear the suit. It was never intended to fly in space, and could not operate without a control console connected to it.”
The designers managed to have a bit of fun with the android. “As a dramatic demonstration of its capabilities,” Ceruzzi writes, “its designers got it to dance ‘the Twist,’ and to mimic the pelvic gyrations of Elvis Presley.”
The android was donated to the Museum in 1986 by Larry Graham, and is on (static; no dancing) display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
July 31, 2012
Conversation overheard this morning between astronaut Suni Williams, onboard the International Space Station, and NASA’s payload science center in Huntsville, Alabama:
Huntsville: We did see [on video] Nefertiti eating a fly.
Williams: Did she jump to get it? How did she get it?
Huntsville: She did jump, she’s adapting well.
Williams: Pretty awesome!
This is exciting news, presumably, to 19-year-old Amr Mohamad of Alexandria, Egypt, whose investigation of the weightless eating habits of two jumping spiders* named Nefertiti and Cleopatra was one of three winners of the global YouTube Space Lab competition for high-school students. Mohamed’s experiment arrived on the station just a few days ago on a Japanese cargo ship, and here the spiders are already munching away on fruitflies.
Mohamed thought Nefertiti and Cleopatra, who jump on their prey rather than trap them, would find zero-g hunting to be more of a challenge. Here’s his experiment proposal:
*Note: An earlier version of this post misidentified both spiders as zebra spiders. Nefertiti is a redback jumping spider.
June 22, 2012
A team of student engineers from the University of Maryland are attempting to keep their pedal-powered helicopter, Gamera II, off the ground for at least 60 seconds — which would set a new world record.
Here’s video of a (40-second) flight earlier this week.
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