Students 3D Print CubeSats in Hopes of NASA Launch

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Students at Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee design CubeSats as part of an elective course. [Image: NASA/Oak Ridge City Schools]

In 2016, wildfires devastated part of the state of Tennessee, around Gatlinburg. More than a dozen people were killed, and many more were injured, while thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. In addition to the human toll, many trees were lost from the state’s forests. Now a group of students wants to monitor those forests’ regrowth – from outer space.

Todd Livesay’s class at Robertsville Middle School is waiting to hear back from NASA to see if their proposal has been accepted to the CubeSat Launch Initiative. The students want to build a CubeSat and launch it into orbit, where it will gather data from the growing forest and send it back to a ground station located near the school. They’re hoping to find out in February if NASA will accept the CubeSat as part of its payload to the International Space Station.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has formed a collaboration with the Oak Ridge City School System. Marshall staff members assisted in developing curriculum that incorporated unique NASA resources, then trained teachers to use those resources for a new elective class called NASA Project-Based Learning. Engineers from Marshall also act as mentors to students in the course. Many schools only have this type of material available in an extracurricular setting, if at all.

“We sought to invest in our community and influence middle school students by exposing them to exciting STEM careers at NASA,” said Patrick Hull, technical assistant for the Structural and Mechanical Design Branch of the Engineering Directorate at Marshall. “To have had an opportunity in junior high to work with a group of engineers from NASA would have been very motivating to me.”

Robertsville Middle School students visit Marshall to present their CubeSat project. [Image: NASA/Oak Ridge City Schools]

Hull worked with Livesay to develop the CubeSat project. Once the satellite was completed, the students, who had access to multiple 3D printers to fabricate the CubeSat, presented it at Marshall to Hull and other engineers. If NASA agrees to launch the satellite into space, however, they will build a new one, and they’ll have plenty of time – two years – to perfect it for space travel.

“The value of skills learned by our students in this program spans more than just STEM disciplines,” said Holly Cross, career and technical education supervisor for the Oak Ridge City School System. “The mentors from NASA encouraged our students to talk about their project in a conversational manner rather than memorizing for a presentation. Our English teachers have commented on how their presentation skills have developed and matured as a result of their interaction with the NASA engineers.”

[Image: Local 8]

The invention of the CubeSat has made it possible for anyone to build a satellite, and it’s become a way for students to reach space, working with NASA in hopes of launching. The small cube satellites are easy to make, especially when using 3D printing, and they carry lessons that go far beyond their small size. The students at Robertsville Middle School learned how to build a functioning satellite, how to work with 3D printing, and, if their project is accepted, they’ll learn not only about launching a satellite into space but about how to monitor a forest as it recovers from a fire.

Several of the students in the class say they want to work in science and engineering, and even work for NASA, someday, and Livesay hopes that regardless of their career aspirations, they’re learning skills that will be valuable to them throughout their lives.

“I hope that they’re learning to not be afraid to try,” he said. “To just give it your best shot. To show up. And to try every day and make progress.”

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[Sources: Local 8, NASA]

 

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