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Students Launching Future Careers Building Small Satellites

Kevin Simmons

One of the largest Small-Satellite conferences in the world happens in Utah. A group of middle school students from Florida traveled to the west to attend the conference to learn more about building and launching their own data collecting device.

“Being able to see people who have built companies from the ground up. It’s just cool to see how they’ve learned throughout their periods of success and the skills that they have done along the way,” said Evan Vera, a student attending the conference.

Vera and his classmate Stone Wilshire are students at The Weiss School in Palm Beach Florida. They and their classmates entered a NASA competition and were selected to have their 1-U CubeSat flown, for free.

“Well, I really like space,” Wilshire said. “So when I saw that I had the chance to put something in space, I was all for it.”

The students, and other members of the school’s cube-sat. development team are working with instructor Kevin Simmons. He traveled with the 6th through 8th graders to Logan for the Small Satellite Conference.

“This cube-sat. technology is an incredible pathway to prepare students to be employable in the 21st century,” Simmons said.

“We’re a middle school and we’re starting really young and everyone here is impressed with us and how far we’ve gotten,” said Victoria Cross, a student in the cube-sat. development team.

Soon, Cross and her classmates will travel two hours south of their school to the Kennedy Space Center for the NASA launch of their cube-sat.

“So our hope is next fall we’ll be up there and watch a dragon capsule, a Space-X rocket carry our cube-sat. up to the space station,” Simmons said. “The astronauts will load it into this deploying mechanism on the Japanese porch and they will kick it out into orbit and we will start collecting our data.”

“One of the things we’re doing is we’re impacting young people in a way that we couldn’t before,” said Jordi Puig-Suari, a professor of aerospace engineering at Cal-Poly University. “We’re starting to see high schools starting to build satellites. Now we have a middle school that’s building a satellite.”

Puig-Suari helped invent the cube satellite, which is about the size of a jewelry box.

“Somebody said for fourth graders it’s space and dinosaurs, my answer is, ‘I cannot bring dinosaurs back, but I can get you to space.’” Puig-Suari said. “We’re really engaging young people in “you can do it.” Space was glorious before as this kind of nearly untouchable pinnacle of technology. And now it’s like, ‘you can do it.”

Because of his experience and reputation within the small-satellite community, Puig-Suari helps organize the annual conference. This year, representatives from 40 countries attended.

During the first week of August the Utah State University student center is transformed into a small-satellite family reunion of sorts. More than 2,500 people were there to network and talk with experts in military, science and academic fields. 

NASA, Lockheed Martin, and even FED-Ex reps set up booths showcasing their products and services. Fedex, for example ships parts for satellites, and the Ball Glass company even has an aerospace division. The European Space Agency was there too.

“One of the things that is important to understand from the educational perspective was that we had no risk,” Puig-Suari said. “If the satellite didn’t work, to a large extent that was irrelevant to us because the student training occurs when the satellite is on the ground.”

Puig-Suari, said when he is working the conference he is thinking about what it means to move beyond the academics of small-sat. technology, what it means to medical research teams, weather monitoring providers, the economy and world peace and how data gathering is big business. He said when he returns to Cal-Poly…

“Our objective is primarily to train students and we can do that even if the satellite were not working very well,” Puig Suari said. “So we could take a tremendous amount of risk, industry could have never done that.”

Finally, Puig-Suari said he will be watching his new middle school friends from Florida, as they design, create and launch a technology he helped to create, realizing that sometime in the not-so-distant future young scientists like them are likely to build upon the technology of today, launching careers in the small satellite world.