Student scientists tracking satellite in space

Oak Ridge RamSat team tweaking device to take photos of Smokies wildfire recovery
Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 6:20 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Student scientists are learning with guidance from mentors as they track their tiny satellite orbiting above the earth. The RamSat device, named for the Robertsville Middle School Rams, has been orbiting the earth since being launched from the International Space Station in June. They are tweaking the device to get photos of forests in the Great Smoky Mountains area around Gatlinburg where wildfires destroyed hundreds of acres in 2016. So far, the few photos the satellite has taken are showing an area north of Gatlinburg, so scientists are helping students reorient RamSat with computer coding and radio communication.

“Right here, I think that’s Lake Superior,” said 8th grader Levi Norman as he pointed to a large display showing photos RamSat took while traveling over Gatlinburg. Because the satellite was aiming its camera north of the Smokies, it captured an image that was not accurate enough for the project’s study of Smokies forests.

Yet, mentors say there is still time to correct the satellite’s orientation in order to get the photos needed. Meantime, lots of data has been collected from the help of amateur radio operators like retired ORNL Physicist Jim Bogard who said, “Oh, we’re going to get those pictures!”

ORNL Data Engineer Ian Goethert said, “The data is excellent that we’re getting from RamSat!” He explained that every data point helps keep track of the satellite, even temperatures that show how close it is to the sun. “If we don’t keep an eye on that, we don’t really know where it is or what it’s doing,” said Norman, who is in the youngest of several classes of students learning from the project.

Instructor Todd Livesay has been leading middle school students for years in a class he calls Engineering by Design, which has received accolades for its innovation in STEM. Livesay said this has been a long journey, including the rebuild of the satellite after discovery of a blown computer circuit. “I can tell the kids when they’re struggling, I’ll tell them, at least you didn’t work for four years and have to take your satellite apart. And they get a kick out of that.” Livesay now divides his time between the middle and high schools. He is developing a curriculum from the RamSat project that will eventually be shared for other schools to use.

ORNL Scientist Peter Thornton has led a team of mentors who have volunteered countless hours to students throughout the RamSat project. They regularly visit middle school classes, plus they offer an enrichment time weekly for students to get an intensive look at the satellite’s progress. Thornton said teaching physics and advanced math concepts to middle school students starts by relating simple concepts such as exploration, photography and temperatures. “So we just try to relate it to things that they’re already comfortable with and explain that yes, you can do that in space.”

8th grader Paige Lawing explained that she’s inspired by the project she’s just now getting to see up close. “I want to be a software engineer.” Fellow 8th grader Norman said, “I just love science!” The RamSat project has so far touched the lives of more than 200 students in the Oak Ridge Schools system and has gained national attention.

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