Reaching for the stars pays off: Student-built satellite deployed into space

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When students of St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington gaze up at the sky in the upcoming months, they'll know that a small piece of their efforts is orbiting Earth, offering its inhabitants information about the "final frontier."

On May 16, a satellite students created was deployed into space from the International Space Station, a major achievement in a four-year effort. With assistance from NASA engineers and St. Thomas More faculty, their "CubeSat," a miniature satellite, was built to orbit approximately 250 miles from Earth collecting photos for research and education. While high schools and universities have participated in NASA's CubeSat program, St. Thomas More is the first elementary school in the United States to do so.

The entire student body gathered in the school gym to watch the Monday deployment on NASA TV.

"It was extremely exciting," said St. Thomas More Principal Eleanor McCormack. It's been a long project requiring a lot of stamina from students, but to "reach this milestone I feel very proud and lucky," she said. "It shows the kids that hard work really does pay off."

Now students eagerly are awaiting images, which will be viewed on computers in the school's "Mission Operations Center" possibly within a few days, according to McCormack.

The method used to transmit the photos from the satellite is called "slow-scan television" and has been employed for many years. Images from the moon were sent this way during the Apollo 11 mission, said Joe Pellegrino, a NASA mission manager and St. Thomas More parent who proposed the satellite project several years ago. A camera takes a photo, and each pixel is turned into sound. The sounds are transmitted to the ground and received by an amateur radio. Then a computer connected to the radio turns the sounds back into a picture. "The picture is reconstructed pixel by pixel," Pellegrino said.

St. Thomas More was among 16 organizations NASA selected to receive a flight opportunity and was in the company of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Joining the St. Thomas More Cathedral School Satellite-1, or STMSat-1, in orbit May 16 were CubeSats from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Michigan.

Using the Satellite Safari app on iPads, students will follow the satellite's orbit. The STMSat-1, sent to the space station via a NASA rocket in December, is expected to remain in orbit for several months.

Individuals at numerous locations around the world also hope to receive images from the satellite. McCormack said connecting with the other locations, which include elementary and high schools, will help develop students' communication skills and understand the project's global implications.

"We don't know when we'll start seeing the photos," said McCormack, "but this is a wonderful step."

Watch a video of NASA Administrator Caharles Bolden congratulating St. Thomas More students.

To follow the satellite

Download the Satellite Safari app on iTunes.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016