Freeport High School students are hard at work on a research project to launch a nanosatellite, also known as a CubeSat, into space.
The project started this summer, when the Freeport School District was awarded a NASA/New York Space grant. Freeport is the third public school in the state, and the only school district on Long Island, to receive the grant. According to NASA, since the nanosatellite program started in 2010, more than 160 CubeSats have been selected for potential launch, with 74 missions launched from educational and government institutions around the country. If all goes according to plan, Freeport will soon join those ranks.
“We hope this inspires an interest in our students to move toward math, science, engineering and technology fields in the future,” district Superintendent Dr. Kishore Kuncham said in July, when students started their research.
The summer program spilled into the 2019-20 school year, and students such as seniors Adisa Johnson and Ryan Strong, both 17, continued to devote an hour and half of their daily schedule to developing the structure and the mathematical calculations for the nanosatellite and its anticipated space mission.
Johnson said he spent five hours a day during his summer break working on the calculations alone. With the CubeSat, he said, the objective is to validate the conservation of energy and measure drag force to quantify how satellites might change in orbit — or, in simpler terms, to figure out what the interaction between the spacecraft and Earth’s upper atmosphere might be.
“Sometimes when I have any open period,” Johnson said, “I go to the lab to work on this.”
Strong said he worked on the prototype by using three-dimensional technology to print out the pieces and eventually built the structure that would launch into space. The CubeSat, he explained, has standardized dimensions, comprising one or more units that are 10 cubic centimeters in size and that have a mass of up to 1.33 kilograms.
The students have broken their project into phases, and are now in the construction phase. Once Strong and Johnson finish building the satellite, they will conduct environmental tests to expose it to vibration, vacuum and temperature conditions closely identical to space.
Then the students will work with NASA to prepare to launch it into space. After the launch, the seniors will perform satellite operations and conduct space experiments. Once the space mission is complete, the nanosatellite will fall to Earth, possibly burning up in the atmosphere.
When the nanosatellite might launch is still not known. Johnson said there was still a great deal of work to do. “I’m not sure when this will launch,” he said. “It’s a pretty big window. I might not be in the school when it does, but I’m coming back to see it.”
Dr. Mason Peck, NASA’s chief technologist and a professor at Cornell University, visited Freeport High last Friday to meet with Johnson, Strong and Freeport Robotics Club students who built a miniature Mars Rover.
According to Peck, high school students have never conducted the research that FHS students have decided to do. “Certainly there have been NASA and other science organizations that have taken a look at the basic question of how thick the atmosphere is and how satellites interact” with it, Peck explained. “But for high school students to conduct this science is paradigm-shifting. This experiment is really compelling.”
Throughout the students’ presentation, Peck reviewed the research and the CubeSat model, offering feedback and suggestions on how to improve the satellite and Rover designs. Despite the uncertain launch date, Johnson said he and Strong would continue to develop the project until it is ready — or they graduate from Freeport High.
When Peck wrapped up his one-on-one meetings with students, the school held an assembly that included students from Caroline G. Atkinson Intermediate School and J.W. Dodd Middle School. Peck discussed NASA’s Mars Rover, showed photos of different CubeSat projects and answered space-related questions posed by a number of students.
Peck also presented Johnson, Strong and the Freeport Robotics Club with NASA certificates certifying that their names will appear on the Rocket Atlas V-541 heading to the Jezero Crater on Mars next July, launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.