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High schoolers’ satellite now orbiting Earth

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post

A blaze of flame erupted from NASA's Wallops Island facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore last month as a satellite developed by students from a Virginia high school launched into space aboard a Minotaur I rocket.

The rocket launch – visible across the Eastern Seaboard in the clear night sky – culminated seven years of work for more than 50 students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Fairfax County, Va. The satellite, TJCubeSat, was the first designed and built by high school students to be sent into space. The Minotaur I’s payload included 29 satellites, which the company overseeing the launch said is the most ever carried into orbit by a single rocket.

“We were waiting for this day for so long,” said Bobby Huddleston, a 2013 TJ graduate who was among a group of alumni and students who watched the launch. “There was a sense of completion, that we had finished this project, and everyone high-fived and hugged.”

The satellite, which completes an orbit around the Earth about every 100 minutes, is designed to receive messages the students send into space; it then rebroadcasts those messages using radio waves that can be heard around the globe via ham radio. The satellite’s voice synthesizer interprets lines of text phonetically, meaning that, with slight tweaks in word structure, the messages can be “spoken” in any language.

Details about the satellite can be found at http://bit.ly/19XxR2b.

The satellite’s location can be tracked at this site: www.n2yo.com/?s=99902.

In a class of nanosatellites known for their distinctive cube shape, the TJCubeSat is about the size of a Pop-Tarts box, is small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and weighs about 2 pounds. The satellite travels at a speed of 4.5 miles per second and orbits the Earth from an altitude of about 310 miles.

Students anticipate that the satellite will stay aloft, transmitting messages and live telemetry about its position in space back to Earth, for at least three months. The satellite is equipped with miniature solar panels and could remain in low Earth orbit for up to two years.

The TJCubeSat project began in fall 2006, but it was hampered along the way by school budget cuts during the economic downturn. Once the satellite was completed, the launch date was delayed by the government shutdown, which temporarily closed NASA's Wallops Island launchpad.

The project started as an extracurricular club before becoming a systems engineering class. After school funding was curbed during the recession, satellite development became a research project for a select group of seniors. The program was initially funded with a $30,000 donation from Orbital Sciences Corp., which collaborated with the school through the project's evolution. About 50 students have taken part in the program since its inception, said Adam Kemp, a teacher at TJ and the TJCubeSat project adviser.

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