High School Students Build Satellite, TJ3Sat, Included In NASA’s Minotaur 1 Launch

By Ajit Jha on November 20, 2013 11:08 AM EST

The TJ3Sat satellite, the first ever designed and built by high school students.
The tiny, but powerful, TJ3Sat is the first high school student-designed and built satellite to be launched into orbit. (Photo: Orbital Sciences)

Satellite launches do not usually make news unless they come with record breaking feats. The Minotaur 1 rocket was succesfully launched on Tuesday, Nov.19, 2013, and it did just that. That's because it propelled into orbit a record 29 satellites including the TJ3Sat — which was built by high school students.

This is the first satellite designed and built by high school students ever. The TJ3Sat and 28 other satellites rode on a rocket from Virginia (NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island) that gave a dazzling nighttime panorama to a large number of viewers from large stretches of the East Coast. The scheduled launch at 7:30 p.m. EST (0030 Nov. 20 GMT) was actually delayed by 45 minutes when it actually took place at 8:15 p.m. EST (0115 GMT Wednesday). 

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The 45-minute delay in the launch was caused by an issue with a downrange tracking station. A clearly visible arc of flame leapt into the night sky as the Minotaur roared to life. The flame was likely seen along the East Coast from Maine down to Florida. The viewing maps provided by NASA and Orbital Sciences included spots as far inland as Indiana and Michigan.  

The launch was part of the ORS-3 mission, run by the U.S. military's Operationally Responsive Space Office. The ORS 3 mission is designed to test automated launch vehicle trajectory targeting and range safety systems. A slew of other experiments and sensors will measure the space environment with the successful positioning of STPSat 3. These capabilities might considerably reduce the cost of future missions, and the time needed to prepare rockets for launch.

There are 28 cubesats (satellites called such due to their cube shapes) that deployed from the Minotaur once the rocket reached its 500 kilometers orbit. The TJ3Sat is one of 28, but it's special. After all, it was designed, built and tested by students at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. Nanosatellites like TJ3Sat are low cost and tiny, but powerful satellites based on "off-the-shelf" smartphones technology. They are equipped with several features like GPS receivers, sensors, fast processors, and high resolution cameras.

The student-made satellite weighs 2 lbs and measures 10x10x12 centimeters, said the officials with Orbital Sciences. It will be possible for students and amateur radio users to exchange data with the satellite as TJ3Sat begins orbiting Earth. The data will also be made available to public users, according to Orbital officials. The TJ3Sat, according to officials, provides opportunities for innovation and participation to students especially because of its size and accessibility of nanosatellites.  In a statement, Andrew Petro, program executive for small spacecraft technology at NASA, said, "It used to be that kids growing up wanted to be an astronaut" but they have accessed an altogether new level with "kids saying, what they want to do is build a spacecraft. The idea here is that they really can do that" asserted Petro.

The current launch also marks NASA's second PhoneSat mission within this year. In April, this year three smartphone satellites called Alexander, Graham, and Bell (after the inventor of the telephone) were launched into space at the time of the inaugural test flight of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket. 

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