Irvine Unified School District

California High Schoolers Build and Launch First Cubesat

Through a revolutionary program called Irvine CubeSat STEM Program (ICSP), high school students in Irvine, California have a unique opportunity to develop their interest and gain hands-on experience in science, technology, engineering and math as they prepare for college or the pursuit of STEM-focused careers.

Irvine Public Schools Foundation (IPSF) has a mission to enrich the educational experience of over 35,000 students in the Irvine Unified School District, one of the fastest-growing school districts in the United States.

According to Kellie Pendergest, director of marketing communications for IPSF, the CubeSat STEM Program is one of the district’s most robust programs, engaging more than 150 student participants each year.

“This program is truly unique in the way that these high school students are involved in every aspect of assembling the satellite and managing its mission. They are not observers in the process, they’re actively engaged and hands-on every step of the way,” said Pendergest.

ICSP’s Second CubeSat

This year, in partnership with industry experts and corporate partners, student teams from the six high schools in Irvine worked on IRVINE02, the second CubeSat to be assembled and tested as part of ICSP.

IRVINE02 will be launched on Spaceflight’s first fully dedicated rideshare mission dubbed “SSO-A: SmallSat Express” aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base in California later this year. SSO-A is especially significant because it is the largest rideshare mission, with more than 70 satellites manifested, from a U.S.-based launch vehicle.

IRVINE02, however, is enhanced from its predecessor IRVINE01 (which will launch in November 2018 aboard a Rocket Lab Electron). It will be one of the smallest CubeSats to fly with an electric propulsion system and will be the first commercial demonstration of next generation electric thrusters. IRVINE02 will have propellant to maintain or lower its orbit, and a Laser Communications (lasercomm) system to download pictures and other science data to Earth.

“It’s been very inspiring to watch the students work with the various component manufacturers to build IRVINE02 CubeSat,” said Brent Freeze, technical director and co-founder of ICSP. “The students have some interesting ideas on how to use the manufacturers’ hardware, sometimes coming up with very novel ideas. As a result, there is often reverse mentoring taking place in which the students are providing the manufactures with new insights.”

As part of the assembly of IRVINE02, the students also have had the opportunity to learn about optical communications and how to transfer data at a faster rate than radio from orbit to Irvine.

“Students from our communications team have been working on this lasercomm subsystem for over two years,” said Freeze. “As they enter their senior year of high school, this experience will be valuable to them as they consider additional education or jobs in fiber optics, space communications and related fields.”

Recognition from NASA

On February 17, 2017, NASA selected IRVINE02 as one of 34 small satellites to participate in its Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) CubeSat Launch Initiative.

Through innovative technology partnerships, NASA provides CubeSat developers with a low-cost pathway to conduct scientific investigations and technology demonstrations in space. This in turn enables students, teachers and others to obtain hands-on flight hardware development experience.

“This is an incredible honor,” explained Freeze. “ICSP was the only of two high school programs chosen by NASA to participate in this prestigious initiative, alongside world-class universities and research centers.”

Working with Spaceflight

Being part of the ELaNa program enabled the students to work alongside NASA and the launch vehicle integration teams at Seattle-based Spaceflight.

“It’s been wonderful to see the students working with Spaceflight’s mission managers,” said Freeze. “The students participate in a bi-weekly conference call with Spaceflight which is fantastic exposure for them. They can see how everything is organized, who does the integration, and how things work together.”

According to Freeze, once IRVINE02 reaches orbit, students will gain valuable insight into orbital mechanics and how to fly in lower orbit.

“They’ll have the opportunity to practice basic maneuvers to command and control their CubeSat,” said Freeze. “We are producing the next generation of technological leaders and leadership for the country. So, having them gain hands-on experience is critical. By the time they graduate, they’ll have an incredible experience assembling a satellite, managing its mission and working with experts, who we anticipate will be a part of these students’ professional lives for many years to come.”

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