Last night an Orbital Sciences Minotaur 1 rocket soared expertly into the evening sky from NASA’s Wallops Island carrying the important-sounding Air Force STPSat-3 satellite aloft. But jammed into the rocket’s body was also a record payload of 28 other microsatellites. Among these was the TJ3Sat. Though you may not know it from its name, it’s the first satellite designed and built by high school students to be launched into space.
TJ3Sat was conceived and constructed at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. It measures just 3.9 by 3.9 by 3.5 inches and weighs only 2 pounds (think of about 10 iPhone 5S’s stacked up) and yet it’s packed with enough power and electronic smarts to communicate with amateur radio operators on Earth–easily surpassing Sputnik’s limited beep-beep powers. The idea is that students on the ground can send messages up to the satellite, which will convert them into a synthesized voice and transmit them back down on ham radio frequencies. Data from the project will be shared publicly.
Also in yesterday’s payload was a second smartphone-based “phonesat,” a platform for NASA to test super-cheap satellite tech, and Firefly, a microsatellite from the National Reconnaissance Office (the spy guys) to study lightning in the atmosphere.