Hitching a Ride: Wise County students send satellite on private/NASA rocket launch

Mike Still • Apr 18, 2019 at 10:37 AM

Several Southwest Virginia students got to watch their science project tag along on a ride to the International Space Station on Wednesday.

Wise County Schools chemistry teacher Jane Carter led more than 50 students, parents and guests from the region Wednesday to NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. There, the group watched a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket lift off with more than 17,000 pounds of supplies for the ISS and a few pounds of miniature satellites.

“We started working on this project in 2017,” said Carter, a chemistry teacher at Eastside High School in Coeburn and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Coordinator at St. Paul Elementary School.

Working with the Virginia Space Authority and NASA, Carter and a team of students from nine schools in Wise, Russell, Bland and Washington counties and Norton formed Wise County Lead ThinSat 2019.

Working on a thinsat — a satellite based on a panel about the size of a slice of bread with a variety of small sensors the thickness of a credit card — the team constructed the satellite and set up its sensor package.

Several school and college teams across Virginia developed their own thinsats, all based on the same panel and similar sensor panels, with the goal of launching on a private Northrop Grumman Antares cargo rocket and Cygnus cargo vehicle in November 2018.

The November thinsat launch was delayed because NASA needed that particular Antares-Cygnus launch for an ISS resupply mission, Carter said. Wednesday’s mission — designated NG-11 by Northrop Grumman — flew on the company’s Antares named the S.S. Roger Chaffee, named after one of the crew of the planned Apollo 1 mission.

Chaffee, along with astronauts Edward White and Gus Grissom, died in a fire during a mission rehearsal in 1967.

Carter said Wednesday’s flight would see the thinsats released in low earth orbit before the Cygnus craft went on to dock with the ISS

While the team could not be within a mile of the Antares launch pad for safety reasons, they and the other Virginia teams could watch the rocket pre-flight from TV monitors until the launch.

Union Primary School student Landon Spain and his mother, Amy, joined the team at Wednesday’s launch

“Though it wasn’t as loud as you expect, you could feel the energy in your chest when the engines ignited,” Landon said. "Building the satellites was fun, but seeing the launch was a whole different feeling. To go from a bag of parts to watching the data come back from space was thrilling, to know you helped build them."

“Watching with a crowd of people and listening to the countdown together created a collective energy for everyone,” Amy Spain said. “There were so many cheers as everyone saw the first plumes of smoke and then the blast at liftoff. It was a rush.”

“I am grateful that Wise County Public Schools is a partner in the ThinSat program,” Amy Spain said. “This has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids and those of us who saw it, not only to witness a rocket launch but to know that they have a hand in its mission. Wise County students were in company today with schools like UVA and the Naval Academy, and it was thrilling for me as a parent and educator to watch their excitement and pride in what they had done.”

Carter said that the Wise County team’s thinsat was one of 43 out of 60 satellites that began transmitting data within 90 minutes of the launch.

“We know we’ve got that data coming for five or six days,” Carter said, adding that she and her students are going to start looking at the temperature and radiation information the thinsat will provide.

Carter said that Wise County Circuit Court Clerk J. Jack Kennedy, a former Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority member, has helped the ThinSat team.

“He’s been the push behind us and has helped a lot,” Carter said.

“It was exciting,” Carter said of Wednesday’s launch. “The kids were excited about seeing, hearing and feeling a rocket launch, but they were wanting to know if their satellite was sending data. That was

important to me because it showed that it wasn’t just an event. It was a learning experience.”

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