Some High Schoolers Built a Satellite and NASA Just Sent It to Space

The satellite will let students talk to other students, in space, through a machine built by children, launched on a deconstructed atomic weapon.
Three satellites—or Cubesats—similar to the TJ3Sat floating above Earth last year (NASA)

So, last night, a rocket took off. It launched from an island in Virginia, turned east over the Atlantic Ocean, and sailed into the atmosphere. Aboard were 29 satellites—a record for one launch.

And one of those satellites? It was built by high schoolers.

That satellite—in space right now, whizzing over our heads—is called the TJ3Sat. Built by Virginia high-school students and their teachers, it represents over six years of work. It is the first orbiting spacecraft built by high-schoolers.

The TJ3Sat (TJHHSST)

You can also interact with it right now. Go outside, bring a short-wave radio, and listen to its specified frequency (437.320 MHz). You’ll hear words spoken by its on-board voice processor, which were converted into waves and beamed back to the ground. Humans submitted those words using an online form—so you’re hearing, via space, the assembled messages of TJ3Sat’s human audience.

TJ3Sat is designed to be used by teachers and students across the country and world. Wielding their own radios and Internet connections, they’ll be able to hear words from other classrooms, via space.

The TJ3Sat, in other words, lets students talk to students, in space, via a machine made by students.

The idea for TJ3Sat was hatched in 2006 by a teacher named Adam Kemp. Kemp works at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Alexandria, Virginia. Kemp—also an author—decided to build a course around building a satellite.

The mission patch for the TJ3Sat (TJHHSST)

Since then, Kemp and more than 50 students have worked on the concept—and the product—essentially non-stop. Orbital Sciences, a Virginia-based company and one of the few civilian space companies, donated $30,000 to buy the school “a Cubesat kid.” 

Cubesat, in fact, makes the entire effort possible. Conceived in the early 2000s, it was invented when researchers at Stanford and California Polytechnic hoped to create a kind of extensible satellite. Perhaps, they hoped, graduate students might operate a satellite with similar capabilities to Sputnik. They succeeded, and others liked the idea so much they adopted similar plans. The first Cubesat entered orbit in 2003.

After last night’s launch, more than 100 are or have been in space.

Cubesats are small, about 10 centimeters to a side (or about four inches). They’re light, weighing 2.2 pounds on Earth. And because they’re a common size, they can fit together on their way to space and be deployed by a common mechanism. Cubesats, in other words, scale

Last night’s launch included 27 of them. Any individual Cubesat might stay in space for two or three years before its orbit decays and it tumbles toward Earth and burns up.

Three cubesats pass by the International Space Station last year as part of an unrelated mission (NASA)

It all sounds simple, these little machines sent into space by university research departments. But don’t forget: Half a century ago, it took all the might of one of the world’s most powerful countries to accomplish the same goal.

Alishan Hassan, a former student with the TJ3Sat program, noticed the same thing.

“We're doing something that a superpower, the Soviet Union, first accomplished,” he said in a release.

What’s more, last night’s batch was sent into space on a Minotaur—a type of rocket built from a converted inter-continental ballistic missile. In other words: The satellite will let students talk to other students, in space, through a machine built by children, launched on a deconstructed atomic bomb. 

The Minotaur I bearing the TJ3Sat—a tiny, white speck in the left part of the sky—passes over the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument last night. (Robinson Meyer)
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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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