East Tennessee middle school students attempt to launch satellite into orbit

(Courtesy: WATE)

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) — It’s a classroom assignment out of this world – literally – or at least that’s the hope.

Robertsville Middle School is in the process of signing a Space Act Agreement with NASA, and once they do, they’ll be the first school in Tennessee to do so, allowing its students to work hand in hand with NASA on their latest classroom mission.

“It was just a class called NASA, and none of us really knew what it was,” said middle schooler Asa Lee. “It just kinda sounded cool, then we got in here and we were designing CubeSats by the end of the year.”

A CubeSat is a miniaturized satellite used for space research. For the 29 students in Robertsville Middle’s NASA class, the sky isn’t the limit – space is. What started out as an enrichment period last August has now turned into a real life space mission for these students.

“We didn’t think we’d necessarily get this far,” said Jaxon Adams.

Courtesy: WATE

The students’ original goal was to design and 3-D print the CubeSat, which would theoretically go into space, but these middle schoolers worked so fast that come midterm time they had already done what was supposed to take them the entire school year.

Now, their goal is to physically get it into space, using something close to their hearts like Gatlinburg as a starting point for research if their CubeSat ever does reach orbit.

“We decided it was a subject we needed to touch on,” said explained student Tyler Dunham.

“There’s a lot of volunteer work going on in the community of Gatlinburg to help rebuild this forest, to help rebuild homes and other structures,” said classmate Bryson Brown. “So we kind of thought we could take spots where there’s no one helping and we see how that grows and then compare it to stuff that is being helped to grow.”

Comparing vegetation data from natural growth and artificial growth, and to say it’s been difficult would be an understatement.

“It’s so hard, it is so hard,” said Adams.

That’s where partners like Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex come in.

As the students go from concept to design, their roles are to help channel all the enthusiasm and research into a design and final product that NASA would say yes, this is “spaceworthy” and give it a launch spot.

“Even a year ago when I first started to hear about this project I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing… an actual satellite? The kids are going to do this?” said Senior Scientist Peter Thornton with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “The more I learned the more I realized that yeah this is a real possibility.”

“It’s really challenging but it helps. See you put your mind to it and then it makes you, in the real world, challenge yourself,” said Dunham.

“It’s always amazing to see what the kids can accomplish when they put their mind to it,” added Todd Livesay, Robertsville Middle School’s STEM teacher.

“I think it’s such an opportunity for the kids that it’s really going to boost their opportunities that they have in life,” says Program Manager Eric Sampsel with Y-12 National Security Complex.

If and when the CubeSat Mr. Livesay’s class made is launched into space, it will go up as payload on one of NASA’s rockets and be launched from Cape Canaveral.

The CubeSat could be there for months collecting data and middle schoolers at Robertsville will have made that happen.