First CubeSat Built By An Elementary School Deployed


Students assembling a cubesat

In 2012, the students from St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia lined up in the shape of a space shuttle in the school parking lot and witnessed the flyover of the Space Shuttle Discovery as it was being retired to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

This awe-inspiring vision was an inspiration to the entire school and a catalyst for them to literally reach for the stars. Thus beginning their quest to build a small satellite, called a CubeSat, that would engage students around the world in Earth observations.

Over the next three years, all 400 pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students participated in the design, construction and testing of their small satellite. Through this hands-on, inquiry based learning activity the students conducted real-world engineering and will operate the St. Thomas More (STM)Sat-1, the first CubeSat built by elementary school students to be deployed in space.

Image of St. Thomas More Students watching as their CubeSat deploys from the International Space Station St. Thomas More Students watch as their CubeSat deploys from the International Space Station Credits: NASA

Joe Pellegrino, a deputy project manager from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center serves as the team's mission manager, he mentors the students on spacecraft assembly, integration, testing and launch. Pelligrino engages the students in the entire systems engineering process to build, launch and operate a satellite in space. The school conducted two high-altitude balloon flights to test their hardware before constructing their spaceflight model. They learned how to operate an amateur radio and build the ground station they'll use to communicate with their satellite. Students donned anti-static clothing as they learned how to solder and construct the fragile electronic components that make up their CubeSat.

Once built, the CubeSat needed a ride to space, and the school submitted a proposal to a public announcement by NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative and was one of 16 organizations selected to receive a flight opportunity and were in the company of MIT, the University of Michigan and John Hopkins Applied Physics lab.

Image of MinXSS students sharing their CubeSat mission science objectives with NASA Administrator Bolden. MinXSS students sharing their CubeSat mission science objectives with NASA Administrator Bolden.

​STMSat-1 was launched to the ISS on Dec. 6, 2015 aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo resupply spacecraft as part of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) IX mission. Along with CubeSats from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Michigan, STMSat-1 was deployed from the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD) system on May 16. The NRCSDs are commanded one-by-one, allowing the dispenser doors to open and the large internal spring to be released, deploying the CubeSats into an orbital altitude similar to that of the ISS, which orbits about 250 miles above Earth. After 30 minutes in orbit, the internal timers on the CubeSats allowed their onboard computers to boot up and begin transmitting. The CubeSat teams utilize their ground stations to listen for their beacons to determine the small satellites' functionality and operational status. Once operational they begin their missions.

- The STMSat-1 mission is an educational mission to provide hands-on, inquiry-based learning activities with an on-orbit mission to photograph the Earth and transmit images to our primary ground station and to remote ground stations throughout the country.

- The University of Michigan's CubeSat investigating Atmospheric Density Response to Extreme driving (CADRE) mission is a space weather investigation that will improve our understanding of the dynamics of the upper layers of our atmosphere: the thermosphere and ionosphere.

-The University of Colorado Boulder Miniature X-Ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS) mission is a science investigation to study solar flares, active regions, the quiescent sun, and their impact on Earth's upper atmosphere. MinXSS is sponsored by NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

As part of a partnership with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, Santa Clara University will conduct ground operations for two Node satellites that were also deployed on May 16 from the space station. Nodes will demonstrate the ability to receive and distribute commands in space from the ground, while periodically exchanging scientific data from their onboard radiation instruments, a first for small satellites. These satellites were sponsored by the Small Spacecraft Technology Program, within NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, and received additional funding from Ames.

The CubeSat Launch Initiative provides access to space for CubeSats developed by the NASA centers and programs, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations, enabling CubeSat developers' access to a low-cost pathway to conduct research in the areas of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations. ELaNa Missions, managed by the Launch Services Program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, provide a deployment opportunity or ride-share launch to space for the CubeSats selected through CSLI. Since its inception in 2010, the initiative has selected more than 100 CubeSats and launched 46 CubeSats. These miniature satellites were chosen from responses to public announcements on NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative. NASA will announce another call for proposals in mid-August 2016.

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