Who hasn’t gazed up into a star-filled sky and wondered, imagined or even dreamed? This view of our sky is just the beginning of all that exists beyond the earth we know. The human need to explore, learn and communicate has motivated decades of space programs which have put nearly 3,000 satellites into orbit around our earth. Students of North Idaho STEM Charter Academy in Rathdrum will soon become one such space program to have a satellite orbiting the earth. This team of students, named Project DaVinci, has designed a satellite that is set to launch this spring.
About the size of a loaf of bread and with a mass of just 3kg, Project DaVinci’s satellite hosts a camera, three exterior solar panels, radio antennae for communication and aluminum plates whereon the names of their generous sponsors are engraved. It is scheduled to launch from New Zealand by June 3, 2018, riding into space on the rocket “Electron,” designed and built by RocketLab. Once the rocket reaches its predetermined height, the payload doors will open and STEM Charter Academy’s satellite will begin its travels around the planet. It will remain in low earth orbit but will be 150 miles further out than the International Space Station.
This dream of launching a satellite into space began in the fall of 2015. Beth Brubaker, project specialist at North Idaho STEM Charter Academy, attended a Maker Fair in New York City where NASA had a booth displaying CubeSats. (A CubeSat is a mini satellite in the shape of a cube.) NASA’s purpose for CubeSats is to get young people excited about space exploration. As Beth remembers her first experience learning about this potential project, she enthusiastically says, “I just knew that we could do it!”
In November 2015, Beth and Dr. Lorna Finman, founder of both LCF Enterprises in Post Falls and STEM Revolution, wrote an application to NASA to apply to be part of the CubeSat program. Three months later, Beth and Dr. Finman received emails from NASA stating that North Idaho STEM Charter Academy had been selected to be on the ELaNa XIX mission. STEM Charter Academy had been chosen—along with MIT, California Polytechnic State University, Langley Research Center and other prestigious institutions—to design their own CubeSat, which NASA would then launch and put into orbit. Twenty teams were selected. North Idaho STEM Charter Academy was the only high school.
Following NASA’s announcement, students of North Idaho STEM Charter Academy were selected to form Project DaVinci. Interested students were chosen based on an interview, their commitment to the program and their ability to maintain an above-average GPA. These students immediately got serious about both design and fundraising. NASA’s grant provides the launch, worth more than $1 million, but students and mentors of Project DaVinci had to fundraise the $250,000 needed to design and build the satellite. Beth credits the hard-working students and our very generous community with raising the funds to make this dream possible.
Designing the satellite was an enormous undertaking. “The initial months were a huge learning curve!” Beth admits. “There were lots of acronyms to learn. We had to figure out what had to be submitted and by when. We had to provide technical information about what our satellite would be like.” Students worked on the design every day during their school-allotted project time for the first year. This has now transitioned into an after-school team activity where the students meet twice a week.
Students did all of the design work on their CubeSat, with advice from their mentors. “They have fantastic mentors,” says Beth. Brent Regan, founder of Regan Designs; Ross Welburn, electrical engineer with numerous patents; Burt Rutan, a highly acclaimed aerospace engineer; Julian Guthrie, author of New York Times Best Seller, “How to make a spaceship;” Dr. Lorna Finman, technical lead; and Beth Brubaker, educational lead all served as mentors for the Project DaVinci team. Jessica Millard, current STEM Charter Academy senior, worked as the project lead for the team.
“Our mission is actually an educational one,” explains Beth. “Our goal is to inspire kids and adults alike to fall in love with space. That’s our focus and why NASA chose us.” As the satellite orbits the planet, students in schools around the world will be able to send and receive messages from the CubeSat. They can visit the ProjectDavinciCubeSat.org website to register and become space ambassadors. They will even be able to tweet from space! Project DaVinci’s satellite will be the first to provide satellite-to-satellite Internet communication and one of the first to complete bitcoin transaction from space.
“We’ve had our hiccups, though,” Beth continues. Their first scheduled launch date was June of 2017 but had to be delayed due to late testing of the rocket. Additionally, the team had trouble getting approval from the FCC for a license to launch. Now, Project DaVinci needs to raise another $100,000 to fund their Ground Station to communicate with the satellite from earth. “There have been many life lessons for the kids to learn. Patience is No. 1, and perseverance. They have really learned not to give up,” she says.
“It has been an amazing journey,” Beth adds. “I’ve been an educator for well over 30 years and this is by far the most fascinating thing I’ve been involved in. It’s probably the highlight.”
In an interview in 2017, graduating senior and project lead, Jessica Millard, explained her teams ambitions saying, “We’re high school students, and we’re launching a satellite. Our goal is a really big one, but the sky is obviously not the limit when there are footprints on the moon.”
Visit their website at ProjectDaVinciCubeSat.org to see how you can donate.