Your coolest high school science project probably involved some baking soda and a paper mâché volcano, right? A little chemical reaction and a big mess? Well, kids these days are smarter than you. They're building satellites and sending them to space.
Students from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, have spent the past seven years building a CubeSat that will hitch a ride on Orbital Sciences' Minotaur 1 rocket tonight. The so-called TJ3Sat (pictured to the left) will enter orbit where it will then send and receive data; some of the data will even come from the public who can submit texts through the project's website. If approved, the text will be beamed up to the CubeSat, converted into an audio file, and broadcast back to Earth over an amateur radio frequency. The satellite sounds pretty simple, but remember: It was built by teenagers.
All in all, the Minotaur 1 rocket will carry a record 28 CubeSats, including the one from Jefferson High. It's a clear indication that we're entering a new era of fast, cheap, and hopefully-not-out-of-control satellite technology, where even the average citizen can conduct experiments in space. The tiny CubeSats are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and can even be controlled with a smartphone. You don't even have to build them yourself. There's a company that actually rents its satellite to anyone for just $250 a week.
NASA really does believe that these tiny accessible satellites are the way of the future. Small, low cost satellites are good for studying anything from Earth science to communications. "The scale of things just makes everything, in many ways, easier," says Andrew Petro, an executive with NASA's small spacecraft program. "It really unleashes a lot of opportunity for innovation." And hey, let's be honest. If a high school student can do it, you can too.