Students shoot for the stars with their own satellite

The Elgin Courier: November 14, 2018

After months of time and effort designing and building their own satellite, a group of young students are raising money so that they can watch their hard work pay off in person.

The NASA class at McDade Independent School District is composed of nine students, all sixth through eighth grade, taught by Carolin Mitchell. They got together starting in late this summer to build a small satellite, which will be transported to the International Space Station in a few weeks.

A vital part of starting this class was Quad-M, a satellite-launching company in McDade founded by Victor Dube. It all started this past summer when one of Dube’s customers approached him with an extra spot for a satellite on an upcoming launch. Dube approached McDade ISD superintendent Barbara Marchbanks with the opportunity, and she was interested.

The school gathered a group of interested students, and Dube guided them on designing and building the satellite. He also taught them how to use computer-aided design software in order to build the necessary parts in the Quad-M shop. Then, the students inspected the parts to make sure the dimensions were correct and figured out how to put the parts together.

Colby Miller, one of the students of the class, said designing the satellite in SolidWorks, the computer-aided design software they used, was his favorite part of the process.

“With SolidWorks, you must be very involved and you must be very talented, because there are a lot of different commands,” he said.

The satellite is four inches by four inches by eight inches long and weighs about 12 pounds, according to Dube. It is made of mostly aluminum and has 18 reflectors mounted on the side so that the students can point a laser at it to track it.

After the satellite was built, it was sent to NASA to be approved and wait for the launch. The satellite will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket traveling to the International Space Station. There, it will be put on another spacecraft, the Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus, and launched higher above the space station. The International Space Station is 400 kilometers above Earth, and the Cygnus will take the satellite another 100 kilometers, meaning the satellite will ultimately orbit 500 kilometers, or over 300 miles, above the surface of the Earth. This is farther than the distance between San Antonio and Dallas.

The reason for launching the satellite in a second craft, Dube said, is to make sure the satellite stays in orbit longer. A satellite launched from the same altitude as the International Space Station will stay in orbit for about six months before falling close enough to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere. However, the satellite will stay in orbit for about a year, maybe two, if launched from an altitude of 500 kilometers.

Once the satellite is in orbit, the students will be able to track and study the satellite’s trajectory as it orbits above them. The U.S. Air Force will be able to get the satellite’s coordinates and give them to the school. The students will build a telescope with which they can point a laser at the satellite’s coordinates and look for a signal coming back down to Earth. From this information, the students can gather information about the satellite’s trajectory, such as its speed and altitude.

Jocelyn Howard, another student, said other than learning how to use the computer-assisted design machines, her favorite part was seeing the project come together as a final piece.

“I’m really excited because it will go on for a year or two after it’s launched, and we get to track it,” she said.

Currently, the class is raising money in order to pay for a trip to see the launch in person.

The launch was originally scheduled for December 5th at a launch site in Virginia, but it was moved to Cape Canaveral, Florida and rescheduled to the afternoon of December 4th.

Assuming this launch date holds, Jocelyn would receive the best birthday present ever; her birthday also falls on December 4th.

Joey Miller, Colby’s father, said that since weather and other factors at NASA can change the launch time at any minute, not knowing for sure when the launch will happen is the biggest challenge.

“As much as (NASA) wants to help out the kids and be as accommodating as possible, they have to do what’s best for NASA,” Miller said. “Things can just alter at the last minute.”

Mitchell said this trip would be a new experience for a lot of the students.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, not many of us get to actually see a launch at all,” she said. “I want them to have as many experiences as possible that we can tie into education and into the real world.”

In addition to a GoFundMe page, the students and their parents have been raising money by asking for donations at the Hogeye Stroll and the Hogeye Festival in October. They came back to Elgin to raise more funds at last week’s Sip, Shop & Stroll with a scavenger hunt and a bake sale.

Miller said he has seen the community pitch in to help the students.

For example, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6115 raised money for the students and donated a check for $1,000 on Monday, and the VFW auxiliary donated another $300.

“Being local, the kids are part of our future,” former post commander Beto Reyna said. “None of us ever had that opportunity when we were in school. Now that these kids have this opportunity to shine, well, let us help them and let them shine for their accomplishment.”

According to Reyna, this has been the most substantial donation Post 6115 has made. The donation was made possible with plenty of income from events such as Hogeye.

Before the funds donated by Post 6115, the students have raised around $5,000 as of Monday, and their goal is $7,500.

The students’ parents, including Joey and Amanda Miller, have witnessed their children’s hard work over the past few months.

“To give up your summer and go to the school when you don’t have to go to school … because you’re passionate about something truly showcases the type of kids they are,” Joey Miller said. “They spent their summer building something that was a passion for them, so they’re just trying to get these donations to see that passion take off in a rocket.”


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