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NASA Launches Satellite Designed by Florida Middle School Students

The satellite, which took 7th graders three years to complete, will test how certain bacteria survives in extreme conditions.

(TNS) — Middle school students who designed and built a satellite watched their hard work pay off as it launched into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this month.

Students at The Weiss School built the small satellite over a few three years and tested it at Kennedy Space Center this summer to prepare for the Dec. 3 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Some who graduated from the school returned to watch a live stream of the launch.

NASA chose 34 educational satellites, called CubeSats, to send into space out of more than 100 proposals. The Weiss School's proposal was the only one NASA picked from a middle school, science teacher Kevin Simmons said.

SpaceFlight Industries — a ridesharing service for small satellites — bought rides on the Falcon 9 rocket and filled it with 64 satellites, including The Weiss School's, Simmons said.

The 2.2-pound satellite, known as WeissSat-1, launched four hours and 39 minutes after takeoff, Simmons said.

Theo Ouyang, a seventh-grade student, helped make the satellite and integrate it at SpaceFlight Industries' clean room, an environment free of dust or other contaminants, in Seattle.

"We got to talk to a bunch of professionals in the field, which was exciting," Ouyang said.

Students sent extremophile bacteria, which thrive in extreme conditions such as glaciers or volcanoes, into space to see if they can survive.

The students are trying to answer the question: Can the extremophile bacteria can survive in the vacuum of space?

Dyes will glow green if the bacteria are alive and red if they're dead, Ouyang said.

The satellite's frame is made from anodized aluminum, Ouyang said. Solar panels power equipment, and magnets ensure that antennas are pointed in the right direction, Ouyang said.

When the satellite is on the sunny side of Earth, the school gets data on temperature and the efficiency of the solar panels. The satellite is 355 to 366 miles from Earth at any given time. For perspective, the International Space Station is 155 to 254 miles from Earth.

Five students took it to the Kennedy Space Center for one week in July to test it and get it certified as safe to fly, Simmons said. The satellite cost about $90,000 to build and test.

The satellite survived a Transportation Security Administration inspection and a trip through the X-ray machine when the students took it to Seattle. It didn't hurt that one of the TSA agents had seen a news segment about the students and their project, Ouyang and Simmons said.

The satellite will burn up in the atmosphere, but not before it transmits several months of data, Ouyang said.

The CubeSat project involves science, communication and the arts. Students lobby legislators in Tallahassee and Washington to raise money and awareness for the NASA program that allowed them to get their satellite into space. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, helped students draft a resolution in support of the program and then introduced it. It's in the space subcommittee.

Lili Szaszvarosi, now a freshman at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, designed a mission coin while a student at The Weiss School. Students Zoe Freedman, Neha Jagadish, Victoria Gismano and Zac Webb created a coloring book that tells the story of the school's satellite launch and then translated it into Spanish. Mandarin teacher Donhui Shi translated the book into Chinese.

"We try to throw a big net, and we encourage kids to be involved in any capacity," Simmons said.

Students have also met with professors and graduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and toured their labs, where they got to see other practical applications of small satellites, eighth-grader Alexa Ernce said. Satellite imagery, for example, can capture shots of algae blocking waterways so that scientists can determine where it's forming and stop it at the source.

Teachers at The Weiss School want public school students to have similar opportunities to learn about aerospace by doing it, but they know teachers may lack time, money or industry connections. The private school for gifted students received an $8,000 grant from the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium to host 10 teachers from schools with high poverty rates, said Shawna Christenson, the school's speech and teacher.

While the teachers are strategizing, their students can attend an aerospace, communications and engineering summer camp.

Simmons and Christenson hope The Weiss School can involve more students from public schools and send more satellites to space. He divided students into teams this fall, and leaders wrote proposals, each 53 to 63 pages, for other small satellite missions. One proposal was for a moon rover, essentially a CubeSat with wheels and a motor, that will land on the Lake of Death and test super-capacitors on the moon. NASA has used super-capacitors to replace batteries in a cordless drill.

Engineers from Aerojet Rocketdyne, an aerospace company with a campus off the Beeline Highway, reviewed the designs and gave students a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

NASA will announce the next round of selections in February, Simmons said.

©2018 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.