How an Inoperative CubeSat Still Holds STEM Lessons

HOUSTON, TX, February 09, 2018 /24-7PressRelease/ — In December 2015, Gabe MacPhail, a seventh grader at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia, travelled to Florida along with 100 other members of the school’s community to watch as the fourth Orbital-ATK Cygnus Commercial Resupply Service lifted into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket aimed toward the International Space Station.

The spacecraft carried thousands of pounds of equipment, including research, crew supplies, and vehicle hardware, but the St. Thomas More community members were focused on one payload in particular: a small satellite – the STMSat-1, an Earth-observation nanosatellite built entirely by St. Thomas More elementary school students.

Armed with binoculars and a livestreaming device, MacPhail and his family watched the launch from the side of the road after three days of weather delays.

“I remember seeing a bright star on the horizon, rising up into the sky and thinking ‘there goes our satellite!'” said MacPhail. “We watched it as long as we could keep tracking it. Seeing it actually launch, that had to be the coolest thing for me.”

The satellite’s mission was to transmit images of the Earth back to a database, to be accessed by teachers and students across the world, but things didn’t go quite as the young satellite builders had hoped.

“In terms of post ISS deployment, we unfortunately did not hear from our satellite,” said Emily Stocker, technology coordinator at Saint Thomas More Cathedral School. “We continue to monitor its altitude and we’ve discussed its reentry with the students. We’ve framed it as a shooting star, so they’re still excited about it.”

Although the satellite wasn’t successful in transmitting images back to Earth, the mission is not considered a failure. The project represents years of students applying science, technology, engineering, and math principles to successfully develop a satellite for launch – skills that they could put to use as many of them pursue careers in the STEM fields.

Felix Pellegrino, a student at Saint Thomas More, said he plans to use the knowledge, skills, and experience he gained during the development of this satellite to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.

“I’m considering following in my Dad’s footsteps and becoming a mechanical engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center,” said Pellegrino, “and maybe even following up on his mission. A lot of work that we did on this project is work that I would do in that career.”

The NASA Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) missions have paved the way to low-Earth orbit for students of all ages, allowing them the chance to develop and launch a self-constructed satellite, then study the results of the investigation through data transmission. Children as young as four, as well as college students and adult organizations, from across the nation have developed small satellites for launch to the orbiting laboratory.

“It gives students, K-12 and college, and educators, another avenue to learn because they are inexpensive, and give them an easy way to test different types of things in space,” said Susan Mayo, National Lab and Education Specialist for the International Space Station Program Science Office.

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