November 7, 2018

PU, PHS, PDS Team Up For ThinSat Satellite-Launch Program Experience

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton University, Princeton High School (PHS), and Princeton Day School (PDS) are working together in an engineering-aeronautics-space program that will culminate in a November 2019 ThinSat satellite launch. The launch will take place at the Northeast Regional Spaceport at the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore aboard the Northrop Grumman Antares Orbital ATK rocket as part of the NG-12 Mission.

“We’re lucky to have gotten in on the ground floor of this project,” said Michael B. Galvin, Princeton University’s director of the enterprise. Galvin, senior technical support and mechanical engineer in Princeton’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, and his students are responsible for mentoring the PHS and PDS student teams as they design their thin satellites to collect data on extreme low earth orbit space.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to further our students’ experience in a manner that’s unprecedented,” said PDS STEAM Coordinator Jonathan Tatkon-Coker. “It’s an amazing opportunity to get real flight time. To make something that’s actually going into space is incredibly exciting for the students.”

PHS Physics/STEM Teacher Daniel H. Lee, who teaches the engineering class and is spearheading the ThinSat Program at PHS, described how his students are working through three key aspects to engineering: function, design, and design analysis. “The interdisciplinary class has students apply their understanding of all the sciences in designing a payload to further the capabilities of a current model that exists or to create a new model based on the data that it collects,” he said. 

So far PHS students have gone through brainstorming and design sessions to think about what kinds of things they can collect. Galvin’s University students have been mentoring through video conferences and in-person meetings, discussing and providing solutions for issues as they arise. The University studio lab has also provided the setting for collaborative brainstorming, creative design, and prototyping. The first-semester Introduction to Engineering course at PHS will pass on the project to the PHS Rocket Club in the second semester.

The three stages of the project, leading up to the November 2019 launch from the Virginia spaceport, include a low altitude balloon launch later this month with sensors on board to see how they function outside of sea level; a high-altitude balloon launch in January or February to test the sensors to make sure they are bringing back data successfully and that the data is useful; and finally getting the payload itself ready for space in low earth orbit. The sensors that were tested in the second stage will be confirmed for flight-ready testing next fall and sent out to the Wallops Island spaceport. 

Galvin, who teaches the spacecraft design class at Princeton, has worked as a design engineer with Lockheed Martin Corporation and spearheaded small satellite programs in the past. 

“I found out about the ThinSat Program at a conference, and I pounced on it,” he said. “It sounded very cool. I was interested in what missions Princeton could undertake. Princeton has a long history of excelling in space technology, and I want to do my part to continue that tradition.” 

He explained that though ThinSat provides most of the necessary hardware and electronics kits for the project, as well as the big cost of the rocket launch, they do not provide additional financial support. 

PDS ThinSat Chief Engineer Tatkon-Coker has assembled a PDS ThinSat faculty team, including Chief Scientist Alana Allen and Chief Computer Scientist Theodore Brasoveanu, who have developed a student-led, team-based PDS ThinSat Program experience. 

“The students are already turning in papers to get their ideas out there,” said Tatkon-Coker. “We’re all enthralled with the program.”