Satellite Building with Shasta High School Students
● By Laura Christman
Story and Photos by Laura Christman
SHASTA HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS are building a contraption that’s slightly bigger than a can of dog food with circuit-board innards, skinny antennae and a covering of wafer-thin solar panels.
The plan? Launch it into space this summer, and then use receivers mounted to a building at the Redding school to track the small speedster as it repeatedly races by on its 90-minute Earth orbit.
“We’re a bunch of high-schoolers building a satellite,” explains Shasta High senior Hannah Blum.
“This is incredibly unique,” science teacher Brian Grigsby says. “Most of the teams on the launch manifest are from either universities or large aerospace companies.”
The satellite is an on-the-side undertaking, not part of a class or providing any extra credit. Senior Nathaniel Stack says that’s actually a plus. “We are all here because we want to be here.”
Some 15 students are involved, working during lunch, after school and sometimes on Saturdays. The $10,000 project is funded by a slice of a large state grant Shasta
College received to strengthen pathways in the region from high school to college to industry.
“This is one of the most incredible things I’ve done,” Grigsby says.
And he’s done incredible things. He was part of a NASA expedition to a Chilean volcano, worked for NASA’s Mars Exploration educational program and established Shasta High’s distinguished robotics program. In 2014, he earned National Space Cub’s Space Educator Award.
Satellite building is something new for the Shasta High alumnus and his students.
“It’s a steep learning curve for all of us,” Grigsby says. “I tell them: ‘I am maybe a half-step ahead of you, and in some cases a little bit behind you.’”
He encourages students to figure things out on their own. It’s OK if an idea doesn’t work.
“Failure is part of life, and you can learn quite a bit from it,” Grigsby says.
The satellite, KnightWolf (from Shasta College Knights and Shasta High Wolves), will be blasted into space as part of a payload of TubeSats – small satellites in metal tubes – sent into orbit by Interorbital Systems. The company in the California desert town of Mojave offers satellite kits and launch services for commercial, government and academic ventures.
KnightWolf’s mission is to measure temperatures and magnetic fields, and transmit the information.
“Seeing something so small, and it can do so much. That’s what’s really cool about it,” senior Taylor White says.
Measurements gathered by the satellite, which has a two- to three-month lifespan, will contribute to the body of information about low-Earth-orbit conditions, Grigsby explains. He plans to tap into the expertise of a friend at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab on the data.
The satellite kit contained solar cells, a battery and electronic components. It was up to the students to figure out how to construct and instruct their satellite. Creating the circuitry has been complex and exacting. Components – pencil-tip tiny – must be placed precisely.
“You have to solder and make sure the pieces are exactly right,” says sophomore Colby Huskey. “The experience of this will definitely help me. I want to go into some sort of engineering.”
The project involves coding and testing. Sof-Tek Integrators, a Redding manufacturing company, is helping review the circuit boards.
Amateur radio comes into play too.
“The satellite is going to get up there and spin around the Earth. If it couldn’t talk to us, it would be like launching a rock,” says Shasta High music teacher Lou Polcari, a ham radio enthusiast and advisor to the school’s amateur radio club.
In the club, students learn about electronics, radio frequencies, communications and regulations. The satellite project is a chance to add space communication to skill sets.
Senior Benny Quiroz, who hopes to go into physics or astronomy, earned an amateur-radio license last year and is part of the satellite project. “I like the idea that the antennae array, a little activity here at Shasta High, will communicate with a satellite.”
Redding is far from Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies and culture, and Grigsby says he sometimes encounters an attitude about the North State of: “What could possibly be happening up there?”
Don’t underestimate Redding students, he says. “Kids here are rich in talent and academic prowess.”
The students working on the satellite are experiencing science – gaining skills in building and problem-solving, as well as leadership, he says.
“I really hope they walk away with a sense of pride,” Grigsby says. “They did this. They are putting something into space – part of a small group of people who have put something into space.” •
1. Isaac Sorrells works with a prototype of KnightWolf, a small satellite that is being built at Shasta High School in Redding to be launched into space by Interorbital Systems.
2. Shasta High School students, from left, Nathaniel Stack, Colby Huskey, Alex Flores and Hannah Blum work on the circuitry for the satellite that will collect data on temperatures and magnetic fields in low orbit.
3. Taylor White is part of the team of students at Shasta High who are building the satellite. Students work after school, during lunch period and on some weekends.
4. Teacher Brian Grigsby demonstrates how the small satellite will fit inside a metal tube for the launch.