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Elementary School Students Building A Real Spacecraft

August 23, 2013
Image caption: Josie Majowka and Kathryn Howard assemble a ground station antenna. Credit: Courtesy Melissa Pore

NASA

It is one thing to be inspired; it is another thing to inspire someone else. It is in another league to lead an entire elementary school in building a real spacecraft to fly in space. That is exactly what Joe Pellegrino is doing with the approximately 400 pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students, including his son Felix, at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Va.

“My rewarding space career started with my seventh grade physics teacher, who lit the fire inside me to become a scientist or an engineer,” said Pellegrino, a mechanical engineer and study manager for the Geosynchronous Satellite Orbit Servicing Mission. “I’m trying to do the same for these kids.”

In searching for a project to engage and motivate the children, Pellegrino decided that they would build an operational satellite complete with solar arrays, payloads and even a ground station. He chose a CubeSat, a four-by-four-by-four cube weighing less than three pounds. Usually built by graduate students, this is the first time ever that grade school children are building a CubeSat – and the students are building everything themselves.

“This idea came to me on April 17, 2012, the day the shuttle flew over D.C.,” said Pellegrino. “That day, the students lined up in a space shuttle formation and the shuttle flew over us.” After fund raising, including money from NASA and his employer, the school purchased the $10,000 CubeSat kit and added payloads, an Earth observation camera and an asteroid observation camera. A St. Thomas More medal, recently blessed by the new Pope, will also be flown into space.  Their mission kicked off a year later.

Pellegrino is the team’s mission manager. He is responsible for leading the spacecraft assembly, integration, test and launch. He also prepares educational materials for the teachers to present. His fellow mission manager, Melissa Pore, another teacher at the school, ensures that all departments of the school incorporate space into their curriculum. The art teacher has the students drawing planets, the music teacher has them making up space songs, the gym teacher has the children inventing space dances, and their religious instructor has the kids writing prayers for the satellite.

Employing the same mission management functions and structures he uses at Goddard, Pellegrino assigned every grade a particular job. The pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes conduct outreach. The first grade has mission operations, including building the antenna and operating the ground station. The second grade is responsible for earth observation, including operating the cameras and building the solar arrays. The third grade is writing the procedures, operating the asteroid detection camera and conducting system engineering including orbit determination. The fourth grade is creating the computer-aided design of the mechanical structure and performing environmental testing. The fifth grade is the communication team, responsible for the Ham radio transmissions of images from the CubeSat to the ground station and also the battery. The sixth grade is building the spacecraft bus including the power and flight computer. The seventh grade is making the 3D compass payload, which will determine the location and orientation of the satellite. The eight grade just successfully conducted a high-altitude balloon test.

Each one of the 400 students has an individual job title and a specific assignment, from quality control to mission artist. Every student also has a deputy one grade below that will take his or her place the next year. “I’ve built a whole spacecraft team in miniature at the school, which was a big challenge,” says Pellegrino.

The next big test will be of the communications system in September. The students will place the CubeSat on the highest bell tower of the Washington National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C., take photos and transmit the photos to a ground station set up at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Pellegrino also dreams of later including the space station’s astronauts in a similar test by asking them to send images from space to the children’s ground station via Ham radio.

A year from now, Pellegrino hopes to ask Goddard for permission to use Goddard’s vacuum chamber and vibration chamber for environmental tests.

When launched, the CubeSat will take photos every 30 seconds and continuously transmit the photos to Earth. The CubeSat will orbit Earth several times a day, passing over the same place two to three times a week. Pellegrino intends to set up a worldwide team of schools equipped with Ham radios, a computer and an iPad application to receive images and track the spacecraft. His wife Stephanie, who teaches at the school, is the network mission manager responsible for putting pins on a map to mark the position of remote ground stations.

The CubeSat will be ready for launch next year. Pellegrino is currently writing a proposal for NASA Headquarters to get onto a launch vehicle. If accepted, NASA will decide on which launch vehicle their CubeSat will fly and when it will launch. Their options include an expendable launch vehicle or, their preference, a trip on a space station cargo element with deployment by the space station’s astronauts. As a backup, ATK has already agreed to save a spot for the CubeSat on their new Athena IIC launch vehicle to be launched out of Alaska in 2015.

Pellegrino’s young team only has one CubeSat, but they hope to have follow-on missions with different payloads. Whether or not the CubeSat actually works, his true goal is inspiring these children. A number of them already want to become NASA engineers or scientists. Says Pellegrino, “For me, if we get 100 engineers or scientists from this effort that will be mission success.”

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Source: Elizabeth M. Jarrell, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.



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