Mission possible

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Students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington are embarking on an exciting project to learn about space and engineering. Their mission: build and launch a satellite into orbit.

As part of a three-year project, with assistance from NASA engineers, students will build a "CubeSat," a miniature satellite used for space research. The CubeSat - approximately 4 inches long and 3 pounds - is scheduled to be launched by 2014 from either a rocket or the International Space Station. Once launched, the satellite will collect photos and data that will be used internationally for education and research purposes. On average, CubeSats stay in space for three months, although some have remained in orbit for three years.

Currently more than 60 high schools and universities participate in the CubeSat program. St. Thomas More will be the first elementary school in the world to participate in the project.

"Usually these are built by universities or even grad students, so it's quite remarkable that we're trying to do this with grade school students," said Joe Pellegrino, a NASA mission manager and St. Thomas More parent who suggested the project for the school.

"During the course of my career, I've built satellites and I thought that the CubeSat would be something achievable the kids could perform that would really get them interested in science and space," he said.

Before the satellite can be launched, it must be carefully constructed and outfitted with two cameras. The satellite also must be tested in a wide range of conditions, including cold, heat, vibrations and high air pressure. At the end of this school year, students will use weather balloons to conduct a high-altitude test of the CubeSat in the school parking lot.

Computer teacher Melissa Pore is helping coordinate the program.

"It's very exciting and excitement spurs learning, spurs hard work," she said. "I have girls and boys of all ages that are coming to tell me they're doing things on the weekend, building, designing, shooting rockets, going to museums, and wanting to learn more with their families."

Through the project, she believes students will learn science in a different way.

"They're going to learn to solve real-world problems in a collaborative environment, they'll seek and explore and discover to learn," she said. "They will learn through trial and error their own research and data collection, their own assumptions and conclusions will drive the direction they go with it."

Every student in the school has been given a specific role for the project - everything from publicizing the project with drawings and photos to constructing, testing and recording data.

Seventh-grader Conor O'Connor is on the testing and integration team. As part of his job, he will schedule all the tests for the CubeSat. He is most excited about the satellite's asteroid detection camera, which will track and document asteroids.

"I think we'll learn a lot more about the engineering and technology aspects of space travel and how hard it really is to put up a satellite, even if it is just 4 by 4 (inches)," O'Connor said.

As the missions operations manager, seventh-grader Creighton Quaadman will oversee what his fellow classmates are working on. He believes students will learn a lot about teamwork and collaboration.

"It's a chance for our school to be involved in doing space activities and having this great opportunity to work together and do a lot of great things," he said. "This shows that anything's possible, that dreams are possible if you put your minds to it, and that teamwork is the solution."

Both students are excited that something they build will be in space.

"It's a great thing to have your school in the history books," Quaadman said. "I'll be (in high school) when it's launched but it's a great thing to know that I was in the school when the satellite was being built. Not a lot of people can say that."

"It's really awesome just thinking about it," said O'Connor. "Basically we're up with like Neil Armstrong, sending stuff into space."

The school's CubeSat project is supported in part by a $10,000 donation from ATK Space Systems. Other space industry donors have contributed necessary equipment like solar panels and cameras.

Vicki Cox is a senior communications manager with ATK. She believes the project will be effective because "it's interactive, it's hands-on learning for the students and it's something that they'll remember for a lifetime."

Pellegrino hopes the project will encourage more students to pursue careers in science, technology and engineering.

"There is a genuine need for American engineers and scientists," he said. "It's a real need, and for me, the mission success will be if some of these students decide to be engineers or scientists. It was a teacher that got me interested in engineering in third grade and that led to a satisfying and rewarding career in the space industry, so if we can inspire some of these young kids through this activity to pursue careers in science and engineering, for me, that's the main purpose of this."

Bahr can be reached on Twitter@KBahrACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013