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High School Students Build Satellite Set to Launch Into Space Tuesday

The TJ CubeSat satellite is the first satellite built by high school students NASA will send into orbit.

Rohan Punnoose, lead senior on the satellite project, briefly discusses TJ CubeSat. Credit: Sherell Williams
Rohan Punnoose, lead senior on the satellite project, briefly discusses TJ CubeSat. Credit: Sherell Williams


Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) students will make history this week when NASA launches TJ3Sat into space. The satellite, which is pronounced TJ-cube-sat, will be the first satellite built by high school students to be launched into orbit.

“It’s been a heck of an experience,” said Teacher Adam Kemp, the faculty advisor behind the project.

More than 50 TJ students have spent the last eight years developing and building TJ3Sat, which is one of 20 satellites selected by NASA as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative. NASA will launch TJ3Sat on Tuesday on an Orbital Minotaur I rocket at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, which is located on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. There will be a livestream of the launch beginning at 6:30 p.m. and the launch window is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The TJ3Sat project got started when Kemp created a systems engineering course back in 2006 that centered on how to build a satellite.

“TJ is such a special place in that it affords the teachers the ability to be creative in what we teach,” said Kemp, who described the TJ3Sat project as “daunting” due to the level of knowledge and quality of the work needed to create the satellite.

Thanks to a $30,000 donation from Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, the school was able to purchase a cubesat kit to build the foundation of the satellite. 

Kemp, who has taught at TJ for the last nine years, said all of the initial design and protyping for the satellite was completed at the school. The remainder of the work was finished at Orbital, where students have spent the last five summers working on TJ3Sat.

Construction of the satellite has served a senior project for most of the past and present students involved, including 17-year-old Rohan Punnoose. Punnoose is the lead senior on the project this year and spent the summer working on TJ3Sat at Orbital preparing it for launch.

“It’s really amazing. It seems you’re in a different world [at Oribital]. It’s very inspiring,” said Punnoose.

Watch Punnoose discuss TJ3Sat in the video above.

The purpose of the satellite is two-fold, according to Punnoose: the first of which is to serve as an educational resource for students and communities across the world, and to foster interest in aerospace technologies and systems.

TJ3Sat has a phonetic voice synthesizer that converts text messages to voice signals that will be broadcast over radio frequencies.

“Anyone around the world can tune in to the frequency and listen to the text they sent out [to be transmitted through the website],” said Punnose.

To ensure TJ3Sat is ready for launch, Punnoose said several environmental tests were recently completed and the satellite was shaken vigorously make sure it could survive being launched into space.

All data from TJ3Sat, including live telemetry such as voltages, currents, temperatures, and other system status information, will be publicly available online while the satellite is in orbit for an estimated three months.

The designs of the original hardware and software for the satellite will also be available on the website for other K-12 institutions to refer to and use as a resource to develop their own hardware.

Kemp said the satellite has had a few launch delays, but his hope is that the weather cooperates on Tuesday in order for the launch to happen.

Once the satellite’s in space, Kemp said he’s not sure what project the students will work on next.

“We’ll see where it takes us,” said Kemp.

Because of his work with TJ3Sat, Punnoose said he plans to pursue aerospace engineering in college.

For more information on TJ3Sat, visit the satellite's website


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Kevin Warren November 18, 2013 at 09:30 PM
"The designs of the original hardware and software for the satellite will also be available on the website for other K-12 institutions to refer to and use as a resource to develop their own hardware." Be mindful of ITAR restrictions on spacecraft hardware. These have very recently been relaxed somewhat but the US takes infractions very seriously and it doesn't matter how trivial the design is or even if you've sourced most of your hardware from overseas (eg pumpkin).
DAVID VINCENT November 19, 2013 at 02:22 AM
WONDERFUL! These are our leaders of the future. the discovers, the thinkers and the doers of the next generation. I am grateful that donations were made and that NASA also stood by them. Now if we could get the other 4 million young people in this country involved in projects like this just think pf the progress we could make as a country. Great job teachers you all should be proud of the good work and guidence you have provded the "chhildren"
David Schaff November 19, 2013 at 08:40 AM
congrats kids, if i were in school it would be the most exciting thing in life. these kids should be very proud of themselves.
Phillip November 20, 2013 at 07:31 PM
a few things: "More "space junk" with no useful, or scientific, relevance." So teaching high school kids advanced electronics, radio propagation, signal tracking, and getting high school kids really excited about further studies is not useful or relevant? Space junk? There is more junk in our Oceans than in space. Do you realize the type of mathematics that goes into Satellite technology or the fact that you need to account for doppler shift ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doppler_effect ). Don't you wish that your kids, friends kids, or even other high school kids are exposed to this type of math? I do! "What happens if it doesn't make it and lands on homes or hits people in the street who pays the bill " Seriously? The rocket launched over the Atlantic. There are no houses to hit. You are more worried about yourself than the research these kids have made? The chance of a problem is slim to none. You're more likely to get hurt crossing the street or driving yourself to and from work. It always amazes me the amount of ignorance some people have over scientific minds of our future. What an inspiration to other kids around the nation. Not everyone can launch satellites into orbit, but maybe another school will experiment with high altitude balloons or other amazing activities. We need more teachers that can motivate students this way, especially with math and science. The teachers, students, and community did an absolutely amazing job. Great job! Oh, and as an amateur radio operator myself i'm really excited and I've already heard morse code from the satellite a few times! I'm sure there are some students that learned a lot about morse code and electronics theory.

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