From Oak Ridge to Outer Space

STEM students at Robertsville Middle School launch nanosatellite into orbit.

Val Beerbower
On Friday, July 23, 2021 - 09:53
Oak Ridge, TN

Students at Robertsville Middle School (RMS) in Oak Ridge, TN have pushed their learning experience to the final frontier. For the past five years, students in Todd Livesay’s STEM program have collaborated with NASA to launch their very own satellite into space.

These smaller nanosatellites are part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides opportunities for small satellite payloads built by students to fly on upcoming launches. NASA provides CubeSat to enable students and teachers to obtain hands-on flight hardware development experience.

A personal NASA connection spurred the idea for Livesay. Dr. Patrick Hull, a 1992 Oak Ridge High School graduate and a friend of Livesay’s, suggested they team up on a project that would involve Livesay’s students.

“I declined at first because there was no room in my schedule,” Livesay recalls. A month later, RMS adopted a new schedule with an additional period for remediation/ enrichment. Principal Bruce Lay asked me to teach an enrichment class, and it was up to me to choose curriculum. I contacted Patrick, and we decided on CubeSat as our subject.”

Oak Ridge, TN
Colby McLemore

Getting Started in Oak Ridge, TN

Obtaining a CubeSat is not easy. Each proposed investigation must demonstrate a benefit to NASA by addressing aspects of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations consistent with NASA’s strategic goals. During its orbit, RMS’ CubeSat, which students named “RamSat” after their school mascot, will document the regrowth of forests in the region following the Gatlinburg, TN wildfires.

Like most space missions, RamSat posed some unique challenges. Livesay says maintaining continuity with the students as they graduated year to year was tricky, but adding after-school meetings allowed RMS and ORHS students to participate, helping the team retain their developed skill sets.

Support from the Oak Ridge community was also crucial. Students worked with mentors while preparing RamSat, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory employees who helped with satellite mechanics, flight computer and ground station software development.

“This project would not have been possible without our volunteer mentors and the cooperation of Oak Ridge Schools administration,” Livesay says.

RMS Career Exploration and STEM teacher William Manning has been working on the project alongside Livesay. He says the project has been critical in sparking student interest in STEM fields.

“I love seeing students taking the initiative to research things about NASA, satellites and space in general on their own,” Manning says. “I’ve had students asking about the NASA and Space-X launches and how it relates to our mission. It’s awesome seeing students getting excited about space topics again.”

Oak Ridge, TN
Colby McLemore

3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Success!

The teams’s efforts came to fruition in June with the successful launch of the nanosatellite. In its first four days, it completely orbited the Earth nearly 60 times. Its beacon signal has been received in numerous states and nations, from Tennessee and California to Germany and Japan.

Eighth grader Odelia Kneiser says she has been impressed with the project’s complexity. “One surprising thing I learned while working on the RamSat was how many components are necessary to make the satellite functional and how something may seem small and unimportant but can actually be a key component to the satellite’s mission,” she says.

Livesay says teamwork is one of the important skills he hoped to build for students. Collaborating with individuals in varying fields of expertise is something the students will utilize the rest of their lives.

"You don’t have to know everything, but you need to surround yourself with those that can help in different areas,” he says.

Want to learn more about living in Oak Ridge? Check out the latest edition of Livability Oak Ridge, Tennessee.