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NASA launches Oak Ridge middle school STEM project into space

Student STEM project gaining global attention for study of forest regrowth.
Updated: Jun. 3, 2021 at 6:55 PM EDT
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OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Update June 14: The cube satellite called RamSat was launched into orbit early Monday morning, June 14, from the International Space Station. A ham radio operator in Virginia was able to confirm that all systems are working as planned. It could be a few more weeks before the students and their mentors know more about their satellite’s journey and when it will start taking pictures of the Smoky Mountains. The project focuses on the regrowth of forests after wildfires. This Oak Ridge Middle School student-run STEM project is gaining global attention after NASA launched it into space on June 3.

The nanosatellite, part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, is dubbed RamSat because it was built by the Robertsville Rams of Oak Ridge Schools. After five years of work, a community of educators, students and their families, plus technical mentors, is celebrating the successful launch of RamSat as extra payload on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Destined for the International Space Station, the payload is set to be released into orbit. NASA engineer and project mentor Patrick Hull, PhD, explained how the satellite will start the next phase of its journey.

“It’s in something called a CubeSat deployer. It’s basically a spring-loaded box and you put this cube in it, and then we release it, and the spring pushes the CubeSat out into space. When it is pushed out it will be in a certain altitude about the Earth, and that will cause it to go into a certain orbit around the Earth,” said Hull.

The mission of the tiny satellite is to research how forests are growing back after forest fires. The devastating 2016 forest fires in the Great Smoky Mountains inspired this mission.

“They have come up with a creative solution to a problem that has faced East Tennessee, looking at the foliage growth in Gatlinburg after the fires,” said Hull.

Infrared camera technology will help obtain visual evidence of how the forests are changing. The students have an antenna and tracking station at their school ready to track the RamSat and conduct research in future months and years. This middle school project is on the same caliber as most university studies of this kind.

When the SpaceX rocket was set to launch Thursday from Cape Canaveral along Florida’s Atlantic coast, a small group of student and their families as well as mentors gathered nearby to watch the launch from the beach. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, students were not able to visit NASA’s launch site, but viewed from a few miles away.

Building the project was a process where students learned from successes and failures. At one point, a tiny blown circuit and coding issues put a pause on the project until the entire RamSat was rebuilt. When asked if they had checked and rechecked enough this time, a group of students unanimously answered, “Yes!” Student Brandon Bonamarte said, “Part of the reason we think we are very, very ready this time, because we do not want to repeat it again.”

So far, 93 students and 37 mentors have been involved in the project, with multiple years of middle school STEM classes involved in some way via Oak Ridge STEM instructor Todd Livesay. While the RamSat is precisely packed with instrumentation for its mission, there was space for one sentimental detail. Student Odelia Kneiser said, “There’s a ballast in the satellite and it has the names of everyone who’s participated in helping.”

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