Tennessee middle school students built a satellite. In 2020, it'll be sent to space.

When senior Veda Seay goes off to college next year, she'll leave a little of herself behind in Oak Ridge.

And she'll have a little of herself launched into space.

Veda, 17, a senior at Oak Ridge High School, was one of the first students at Oak Ridge's Robertsville Middle School to work on researching and building a satellite with STEM teacher Todd Livesay's class.

Last month, students learned from NASA that their creation — named RamSat, after the middle school's mascot — will be launched in October 2020, aboard the NG-14 Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station.

"It's surreal," Veda said. "I did that. I started that. ... I'm in awe of it, honestly."

'Hours of research'

Four years ago, Livesay first got the opportunity to bring a space project to school. Livesay had previously talked to NASA scientist Dr. Patrick Hall, an Oak Ridge native and a personal friend, about their mutual desire to have a space-related STEM project for students. But, Livesay said, "I didn't have any time in the (school) schedule."

That changed in the summer of 2015, when the school gained an eighth period for the upcoming school year and Livesay was asked to teach an enrichment class. Livesay visited Hall at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., who showed him a 10-centimeter cube satellite his team there was working on and some of the challenges they faced with the design, including powering it with solar panels and creating a door that could open automatically in space to deploy objects.

Livesay came back with a challenge for students — and, it turned out, for the community.

That first group of students, in the fall of 2015, focused on researching and developing a prototype — a "foundation year," Veda said.

"We did hours of research every day," said Jaxon Adams, now 16 and a junior at Oak Ridge High. "We eventually got to building, but it took a lot of research."

Jaxon and Veda remember thinking about the project constantly, even dreaming about solutions to problems they came across in their research. Now no longer middle-school students, they're still involved: One day a week, current and former students meet after school for the project.

Ultimately, the students' research led them to put the satellite into an oblong frame, not the 10-centimeter cube they'd originally planned.

"We needed more space for solar panels to power the insides," including a transmitter and a camera, said Aidan Hilliard, now 16.

As the project grew in sophistication, older students mentored young ones — and mentors from the community also came on board. Holly Cross, supervisor for career readiness and communications for Oak Ridge Schools, said as many as 100 adults have likely volunteered time or donated money or other resources, but six adults come on a regular basis to work with the students.

Peter Thornton is one. Thornton came on board early because of his experience writing proposals for NASA. (The students had to come up with a working proposal to present.) Thornton's work as a research and development scientists in the Environmental Sciences division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory has to do with developing computer models to predict future climate change.

"Every year, we learn something new from the students who have been doing their research, something we didn't know about — for example, orbital mechanics," Thornton said. "It's a huge learning experience for everyone. It's exciting to be engaged with a bunch of students who are also really excited about the project."

Mission: To measure regrowth

Now, four years and many models into the project, students have finalized the components to build the satellite — all commercially ready, flight-tested parts. They've presented to local scientists and twice to NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center, who decided the project was feasible and had educational merit.

And last year students Hudson Reynolds, Adler Keehn and Eli Underwood — now all high-school freshmen — came up with what ultimately will be the satellite's mission: taking photos from space of Gatlinburg, to measure regrowth of vegetation after the 2016 wildfires.

That required students to do more research, to learn how to read infrared camera pictures taken from space. It also required more research on the best way and most cost effective way to power the satellite — lithium batteries recharged by solar panels.

"We have a lot of things that take up a lot of energy," said eighth-grader Natalie Vishnivetskaya, 13.

This year, a local ham radio club has developed a way for the students to transmit and test signals from the satellite in the room. The satellite itself is built from commercially available parts, including the 2u frame; flight computer; power control board; flight battery; solar panels; flight vhf/uhf radio and antennas; flight cameras; sun sensor electronics; and attitude determination and control system. Students, who have a budget, will likely make the ballast, a piece of machined aluminum to give the satellite extra weight and extend its mission to two years.

Students can explain, in detail, the mechanics of each part: what it does, how it works and why it was chosen.

"As a group, we're really smart," said Sam Livesay, 15, now a sophomore. "We know all of this information."

Boosting confidence, curriculum

Nothing about the satellite itself, or the technology it will use to measure vegetation regrowth, is ground-breaking, said Livesay, now in his 36th year of teaching.

"But for the kids to do it, it's new to them," he said. "And it's very good, new technology. For them to figure out the design process ... and see it through, that's big for middle school kids — even high school or college kids."

Livesay has seen the project give students a purpose and a boost in confidence, as they learn about opportunities they might not have known existed through the project and the annual trip to Huntsville.

"I've heard several of them say, 'I want to work for NASA,' which I don't think that would have been something on their radar," Livesay said. "It's just not around here."

He and Cross are developing a middle-school curriculum, based on the project, to share with other educators. It will likely be available for download, Cross said.

Meanwhile, as word of mouth travels from older kids to younger ones, Livesay has students clamoring to be in his class — and raving about the experience.

"A bunch of my friends had done it, and it sounded really cool," said Laurel Hetrick, 14, now a high-school freshman.

Next fall, students who worked on the project will likely travel to Florida to watch the launch of the satellite on the ELaNa-13 mission, Cross said. They can watch the International Space Station, from where it will be deployed, online.

"It truly is kid-driven," Livesay said. "Students have driven the whole project. They came up with the mission ... they researched what components we should use.

"They've owned it."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Kristi Nelson

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org


Published September 6, 2019