From left, Greenlaw, Williams, Joshi and Lucas with their CubeSat, which will be attached as a payload on the rocket Stardust 1.0, estimated to launch in the next few weeks. Contributed / Zoe Nye

FALMOUTH — A group of Falmouth High School students are developing a payload as part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative and will soon have a chance to test it during the launch of the Stardust 1.0 rocket in Brunswick. 

In January 2019, the Maine Space Grant Consortium reached out to every school district in the state in search of CubeSat project proposals for Maine’s first CubeSat, MESAT1. Of the 11 schools that applied, Falmouth High School, Saco Middle School and Fryeburg Academy  were selected to develop their proposals for MESAT1. The students will work with teams at the University of Maine Orono and the University of Southern Maine. Maine is one of 11 states that are providing NASA a total of 18 CubeSats. 

MESAT1 is a small research satellite that attaches to rockets as auxiliary payloads, designed to carry out the functions of the satellite. Andrew Njaa, a physics teacher at Falmouth High School, had been interested in CubeSats for years when he learned about the opportunity for Maine students to participate in NASA’s initiative. He and the engineering technology teacher John Kraljic pulled a group of seven girls ranging from freshman to juniors.

“Part of the initial criteria was we wanted to have a team of all girls because one of the things we’ve been trying to do is encourage engineering and we noticed that the dynamic of the team changed depending on how you set it up,” Njaa said. 

Of the original seven, four members remain: seniors Shruti Joshi, Libby Greenlaw and Carissa Lucas and junior Pema Williams.

For the students, the project really came to life when bluShift Aerospace, a Brunswick-based aerospace firm, contacted them in October 2020 looking for student payloads to include on the test launch of the Stardust 1.0 rocket.

You never get this kind of opportunity,” Joshi said. “Even with the bluShift launch they’re using a biofuel rocket, which is new technology and we’re on the frontier of what is possible, so just being a part of that is really exciting.” 

The team proposed a payload that would monitor harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Maine. Often referred to as “red tide,” the algae can accumulate in shellfish and fish, which can poison or even kill people who consume the infected species.

According to Greenlaw, one of the major challenges for the group has been figuring out exactly how they’re going to sense harmful algal blooms. One of the factors they’re looking at is the presence of chlorophyll-a, which in high concentrations could indicate the presence of an algal bloom.

“The more we talked with experts in marine biology fields and people who are involved in remote sensing we found out that this is actually a very challenging task,” Greenlaw said. “Our goal right now is trying to find a sensor that will look at different wavelengths and try to establish where there is chlorophyll-a concentrations in the water and see if we can potentially detect the algal blooms earlier than citizens who are in the bodies of water might.”

The bluShift launch, originally planned for late October, has been pushed back multiple times due to unsuitable weather conditions.

According to Seth Lockman, communications director at bluShift Aerospace, a 48-hour window of low cloud coverage and low winds is required to launch. It’s hoped the event can be rescheduled for the week of Jan. 25, he said.

Williams said including their payload on the Stardust 1.0 launch will allow the group to collect a variety of data such as altitude, pressure and acceleration to measure the force that’s going to be exerted on the payload. The data will be used when preparing for the NASA launch, tentatively scheduled for March 2022.

“Looking towards the future of the four students, this is really empowering because they’re learning about how real science is done and how no one sits in a cubicle and does this alone,” said Kraljic, the engineering teacher. “It really takes a community and sharing ideas and working towards the common good.”  

Although three of the four girls will graduate before the estimated date of the NASA launch, they all plan on remaining as involved as possible in the project.

“My favorite part has been the people,” said Greenlaw. “Shruti, Pema, Carissa and I have definitely bonded a lot over this, but also just the networks that we’ve been able to create with the other people involved. Along the ride it’s been amazing to meet all these different people and see how one little thing has connected us to this amazing network of really enthusiastic scientists.”

We were so young when this all started; we didn’t really know what we were capable of,” Williams said, who was a freshman when she joined the group. “So much of this work was independent and we were figuring it out as we went along, but we’ve been able to accomplish a lot.”

Comments are not available on this story.