Discovery Museum will have window onto Earth
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — For years, David Mestre has told students visiting the Discovery Museum and Planetarium in Bridgeport to look up.
Look up to the stars and envision yourself going there and working in space.
Within the next three years, museum visitors will also be able to look back.
The museum has been accepted into NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which will enable engineers and scientists associated with the museum to design a satellite to be launched alongside a larger payload into space. The idea, which seemed like only talk a few years, makes Mestre giddy.
Staff thought the idea was a long shot and they were shocked to learn that their plan had been accepted, he said.
“After we applied, I thought, ‘What are the chances?’ The worst they could say is ‘yes.”’ Mestre said. “Now we’ve gotta build it. It’s not just on paper anymore.”
Twenty-four institutions, most of them universities, were selected in the program’s latest round to prepare “nanosatellites” — satellites that are slightly smaller than a loaf of bread and weigh only a few kilograms.
The satellite is being built as a part of a collaborative effort through the museum, the University of Bridgeport, the University of Hawaii/NASA Astrobiology Institute and engineers with UTC Aerospace Systems. Museum staff decided to pursue the application after holding space simulation programs for children at the museum for nearly 20 years.
After its launch, the satellite will become the first to be designed, constructed and controlled from Connecticut, said Alan Winick, director of education at the museum.
Most of the work for both renovating the museum and building the satellite is staying local, he said.
“This is truly a homegrown program,” Winick said. “We’re working with the schools to build a curriculum. We’re working with the university to design it and we’re working with (UTC) to build it.”
University of Bridgeport engineering students are aiding in the design of the satellite, researching what types of sensors may be necessary for experiments and building its onboard communication system.
“You wait your whole life to be part of a satellite launch,” said Jani Macari Pallis, an associate professor of engineering at the university who is working on the project. “It doesn’t matter what age you are. This type of engagement for people of all ages is just a natural draw.”
The launch could be held as early as 2014, but staff are debating whether to wait until another available launch date in 2016 to spend more time on building and designing the craft.
Once in orbit at nearly 250 kilometers above Earth, the rectangular-shaped satellite will be under the control of the museum, which is building its own mission control center and relay systems to communicate with the spacecraft. The mission of the satellite is twofold: to provide educational opportunities for students in the Bridgeport area and to complete an experiment in collaboration with the University of Hawaii.
One side of the craft will be outfitted with sensors measuring space radiation, weather patterns and a live-streaming camera to beam real-time photos back to the Bridgeport location for students to see. The second operation is more research-oriented, using lasers and other devices to measure a near-microscopic amount of debris floating in the earth’s orbit.
The satellite is expected to have a life span of nearly three months before space radiation shuts it down and the craft eventually burns up in the atmosphere.
That information could prove useful in the future for scientists interested in “space junk” — man-made debris left by other spacecraft and satellites — and other extraterrestrial items floating around the planet that may impact or harm future launches.
Still, Mestre said the true impact will be on local students, whom they hope will be inspired to pursue careers in math and science.
“The idea that you can even achieve a space program for kids — even a few years ago — was unthinkable,” said Mestre, manager of space science at the museum.
“Now NASA is saying `Go ahead and show me the program you’ve been thinking about.’ It’s exciting,” he said. “We’ve realized we can do this, as crazy as it sounds. These kids 30, 40 years from now will have a different idea of what’s possible because in middle school they were conducting experiments in space from their own mission control.”
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