East Tenn. middle school first in country to send satellite into orbit with NASA

RamSat ready for 2021 space mission
Published: Feb. 22, 2021 at 6:45 PM EST
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OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Students congregate outside Robertsville Middle School on a sunny Saturday, watching what looks like a television antenna rotating atop the school building. It is tracking the International Space Station as it passes overhead. Eventually, the computer system used to control the antenna will be reprogrammed to track the tiny satellite the STEM class has built for a mission in space.

Five years of work, $70,000 in community donations and countless volunteer hours by expert mentors are leading up to a project ready to launch into space. This would make Robertsville the first middle school in the United States to send a satellite into orbit with NASA.

The students named their nanosatellite, or CubeSat, in honor of the school’s mascot. It’s named RamSat. Its mission is to document regrowth of forests after the Gatlinburg wildfires as it passes above East Tennessee in its orbit above the earth.

Student Jonathan Bonamarte said, “You can track how much more the trees are growing and so that’s what it has an infrared camera which can basically see like the life.” A ground station is ready to help students visualize the track of their satellite and to gather all of the photographs and other data it can during an approximately one-year period.

Class after class passing through Todd Livesay’s middle school STEM program has had the opportunity to become part of the RamSat team, learning everything from how coding works to the complexities of aerospace engineering.

“So we’re trying to teach graduate school math to middle school students,” said Oak Ridge National Laboratory mentor Melissa Dumas. She said time was spent illustrating key concepts to students in ways they could understand, such as drawing a large compass wheel on the floor to show students how calculations worked to determine various satellite positions. Some high school students return to continue being part of the project.

Final preparations for the mission include a checklist of details to determine everything is in proper working order on the RamSat. This includes computers to talk with the ground station, sensors to keep it facing the correct direction, cameras to take photos and more.

Student Hudson Reynolds said, “We just want to make sure that everything is right because once we’re in space we can’t really change anything about the satellite.”

Harsh winter weather in Texas has delayed by a few days the time that NASA is asking for delivery of the CubeSat to a predetermined place where it will be carefully loaded into a special container. There it will wait for the time when it is included as extra payload on a rocket headed to the International Space Station - estimated now as this summer.

“Basically every kind of math you can think of is somewhere in the satellite,” said Odelia Kneiser, who is fascinated to learn about the space project in her first STEM class of middle school.

Principal Kirk Renegar said he is proud that Robertsville Middle can lead the way for other STEM programs. “We hope that it really is a platform for other students, other schools who might be interested in cube satellites to be able to take and look at the work that we’ve done and really build on it.”

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