Students from throughout the state have spent months creating their own mini-satellites. On Saturday, they’ll finally put them to the test – and take another step toward building a new industry for Maine.

Winslow school Cubesat team student Charles Byers solders a fine electrical wire Wednesday before the wire was attached to a Mylar satellite students were building. Winslow High School’s team is one of six Maine teams that will launch their designs Saturday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The tests will take place at the inaugural University of Southern Maine Cubesat Design Competition, with teams from Winslow, Falmouth and Portland high schools and Lincoln, Noble and Maranacook middle schools, as well as Fryeburg Academy, as the finalists.

Those teams have worked with mentors to build the mini-satellites, known as “cube satellites” or “cubesats,” from conceptualization to construction. Cubesats are a class of small, cube-shaped research spacecraft, often weighing less than 3 pounds, that are put into orbit to collect data.

Students from Winslow, for example, built a satellite to test their solar sail, which uses sunlight to propel its way through the vacuum of space. A rocket launched earlier this year from the former Loring Air Force Base contained in its payload a satellite designed by Falmouth High School students to monitor harmful algae blooms.

That launch, by a Brunswick-based company, was a sign that Maine is making a play in the microsatellite business. The small rocket, using environmentally friendly biofuel, reached just under 5,000 feet. It was a test of the technology that could be used to affordably place these tiny devices into specific orbits for a variety of purposes, using Maine’s access to the polar orbit as an advantage.

As it should be, building that industry is a true public-private effort. As part of that effort, USM, with the help of a NASA grant, is looking to create premier facilities and programs for students.

Getting young students engaged is an important step. USM and the Maine Space Consortium held a series of workshops last fall to provide students working on the projects with support. Nine teams competed this year – in time that should grow.

The competition is in fact experiential education. Rather than reading about concepts in textbooks, students are putting them to real-world use – the kind of active learning that has been shown to benefit students and increase interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

The projects also emphasize and exercise teamwork, leadership and project management, skills that employers in almost every field are looking for.

It’s no surprise that cube satellite projects are getting more popular at colleges and universities. No matter how the tests turn out or what careers these students eventually choose, the students have gained valuable experience and skills. They’ll be more prepared as a result for the next step in their education and, later, in whatever field they enter.

In Maine, initiatives like the Cubesat Design Competition take on additional importance. If the microsatellite industry is going to thrive here, it will need talented workers. By encouraging students to build there own satellites, Maine can make sure that those workers come from here.

It’s a rare chance to create an industry close to home, even if it’s one focused on sending things far away.


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