Cambrian: Opinion

Coast Union physics students launch space program

A dozen Coast Union physics students take control of a space satellite for a week in April.
A dozen Coast Union physics students take control of a space satellite for a week in April. Courtesy of the NanoSatisfy web site

Daniel Schalk’s physics class is among a small group of high school students across the nation enrolled in Kids in Space. Through this program they will perform experiments using small satellites called ArduSats. ArduSats have no propulsion systems but have simple, yet sophisticated, scientific instrumentation.

Students will run projects and experiments that might include photographing Cambria from space, modeling the earth’s magnetosphere, hunting for meteors hitting earth’s atmosphere, or measuring the difference between the solar spectrum at sea level versus in space. As they will have 24 hour per day access to the satellites for a week, what they tackle will be limited only by their imaginations.

Beginning in February, Schalk’s class will begin to learn how to program the satellites’ functions. The satellites are controlled by Arduinos, simple microcontrollers used by hobbyists and students to program and control devices ranging from LilyPads to robots.

Programs will be built in the programming language C and will be uploaded to the satellites via an Internet connection. In the classroom, students will have actual satellites to program so they can test the results of their software. Accordingly, they should be proficient by the time they get control of the orbiting satellites at the end of April.

Included in the Kids in Space curriculum are modules covering the design of experiments and data analysis. Approximately 48 hours after running an experiment on the orbiting satellite, the students will receive data packages with results. These data will be used to create graphs and/or build mathematical models. At year-end, students will be able to use their experiments and results as class projects if they choose.

Schalk notes that members of the current generation of space scientists and engineers are retiring at a high rate. Projects like Kids in Space will not only generate renewed interest in astrophysics, but also will provide his students with significant experiential learning should they decide to continue to study the discipline.

ArduSats have been developed by NanoSatisfi, a small San Francisco company. Kids in Space is marketed to schools by Magnitude.IO, a nonprofit also located in San Francisco. ArduSats are approximately 10 cm (4 inch) cubes that incorporate 10 different types of sensors: accelerometer, gyroscope, camera, Geiger counter, infrared thermometer, light sensor, magnetometer, spectrometer, sun sensors (photodiodes) and temperature sensors.

These satellites are carried into space as cargo and then launched from the International Space Station. Since they are small and light (less than four pounds), these launches are relatively inexpensive. Currently two ArduSats have been launched, but NanoSatisfi’s objective is to launch hundreds to enable widespread access.

For now, as participants in the pilot phase of Kids in Space, CUHS students have an out-of-this-world opportunity.